The Student of Prague: The Very First Independent Film (1913)

When peo­ple talk about “inde­pen­dent cin­e­ma” today, they seem, as often as not, to talk about a sen­si­bil­i­ty — we all know, on some lev­el, what some­one means when they tell us they “like indie films.” But the term has its roots, of course, not nec­es­sar­i­ly in inde­pen­dence of spir­it, but in inde­pen­dence from sys­tems. Now that tech­nol­o­gy has grant­ed all of us the abil­i­ty, at least in the­o­ry, to make any movie we want, this dis­tinc­tion has lost some of its mean­ing, but between about twen­ty and eighty years ago, the com­mer­cial estab­lish­ments con­trol­ling pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and screen­ing enjoyed their great­est solid­i­ty (and indeed, impen­e­tra­bil­i­ty). Dur­ing that time, mak­ing a film inde­pen­dent­ly meant mak­ing a fair­ly spe­cif­ic, often anti-Hol­ly­wood state­ment. But what about before then, when the medi­um of cin­e­ma itself had yet to take its full shape?

Not only does 1913’s The Stu­dent of Prague offer an enter­tain­ing exam­ple of inde­pen­dent film from an era before even Hol­ly­wood had become Hol­ly­wood, it has a place in his­to­ry as the first inde­pen­dent film ever released. Ger­man writer Hanns Heinz Ewers and Dan­ish direc­tor Stel­lan Rye (not to men­tion star Paul Wegen­er, he of the Golem tril­o­gy) col­lab­o­rat­ed to bring to ear­ly cin­e­mat­ic life this 19th-cen­tu­ry hor­ror sto­ry of the tit­u­lar stu­dent, a down-at-the-heels bon vivant who, besot­ted with a count­ess and deter­mined to win her by any means nec­es­sary, makes a deal with a dev­il­ish sor­cer­er that will ful­fill his every desire. The catch? He sum­mons the stu­den­t’s reflec­tion out of the mir­ror and into real­i­ty. So empow­ered, this dop­pel­gänger goes around wreak­ing hav­oc. Hard­ly the osten­si­bly high-mind­ed mate­r­i­al of “indie film” — let alone “for­eign film” — from the past half-cen­tu­ry or so, but The Stu­dent of Prague treats it with respect, arriv­ing at the kind of uncom­pro­mis­ing end­ing that might sur­prise even mod­ern audi­ences. If you don’t watch it today, keep it book­marked for Hal­loween view­ing.

You can find The Stu­dent of Prague added to our big film col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Film, The Golem, with a Sound­track by The Pix­ies’ Black Fran­cis

Watch Häx­an, the Clas­sic Cin­e­mat­ic Study of Witch­craft Nar­rat­ed by William S. Bur­roughs (1922)

Watch the Quin­tes­sen­tial Vam­pire Film Nos­fer­atu Free Online as Hal­loween Approach­es

Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis: Uncut & Restored

The Pow­er of Silent Movies, with The Artist Direc­tor Michel Haz­anavi­cius

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • TIC-filmz-Distribution says:

    The Stu­dent of Prague is a 1913 Ger­man silent hor­ror film. It is loose­ly based on “William … The Stu­dent of Prague is con­sid­ered to be the first Ger­man art film, and it helped lift cin­e­ma from its low-class, fair­ground ori­gins to a viable art form. … Audi­ences flocked to see the film, in part because it tapped into a very real sense .

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