On average, in the past decade, 104 horror movies were made each year. Although only one horror movie, “The Silence of the Lambs”, has ever been awarded an Academy Award for best film, the horror genre is popular with audiences worldwide and has long been accepted as one of the essential film genres.
The creative method and exact date of the first horror feature is, however, something that even the avid moviegoer may not know; interestingly enough, the same film was also shot in Prague, Czech Republic.
In 1913, while legendary artists like Georges Méliès and the Lumiere Brothers experimented with creating short spooky films before, the genre of horror was only an idea in the minds of two young filmmakers, Paul Wegener, and Stellan Rye. The ambitious duo’s first film in the genre was set to become a joined adaptation of three notable horror writings: Edgar Allan Poe’s novel “William Wilson”, the classic German legend of Faust, and a poem titled “La Nuit de Décembre” by the French poet Alfred de Musset. Unlike many films from its era, “The Student of Prague” gained popularity upon its original release and is one of the most remade films up to date.
“The Student of Prague” belongs to a significant cinematic movement of German Expressionism, which, in time, would give birth to horror as we know it. Expressionist films were dark, often featured eerie music and suspenseful settings. Many of their characters were supernatural beings: vampires, sorcerers, undead creatures, or, like the student of Prague himself, dealt with the Devil. The striking difference between modern and early horror films is in the message. While the horror flicks of our time mainly mean to entertain the public, the monstrous characters and terrifying plots of German Expressionism were intended to represent the flawed morals and social issues of the period; they were, by all means, horrifying and haunting, but only due to their honesty and metaphoric realism. With that in mind, who was the student of Prague and what lesson did he learn at the end of his film?
Balduin, an excellent swordsman and a student, leading a humble life in the 1820s Prague, falls for Margit, a countess who cannot be associated with a penurious man like him. Balduin’s accidental acquaintance, sorcerer Scapinelli, offers the desperate young man 100 000 gold coins in exchange for a single object from his room. Balduin immediately agrees, convinced he doesn’t own anything worthy of such reward. Unfortunately for Balduin, the deal goes horribly wrong.
Starring its co-creator Paul Wegener as Balduin and distinguished German actress Grete Berger as Margit, “The Student of Prague” is a sinister tale of social injustice and selfhood. In addition to the many indoor settings, several notable landmarks of Prague were featured in the film, including The Prague Castle and The Golden Lane. The critical acclaim of “The Student of Prague”, earned Prague an essential role in the 20th-century film culture, later prompting many filmmakers to set their own motion pictures at this location. Its innovative camera techniques, original musical score, and meaningful message made “The Student of Prague” a cultural phenomenon, which will forever be remembered as a masterpiece of early horror and independent European cinema.
“The Student of Prague” (1913) is now in the public domain and available for online streaming on YouTube.