Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film. The following post accompanies the “Two Danish Innovators” program, which screens on October 28, 29, and 30 in Theater 3.
Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) has been called “the first real auteur film.” Actually, it appears now to have been a collaborative effort between director Stellan Rye (1880–1914), cameraman Guido Seeber (1879–1940), and star Paul Wegener (1874–1948), whom the same critic (Klaus Kreimeier) dubbed “the first modern German film actor.” Although the Danish Rye died fighting for Germany early in the First World War I, Seeber went on to photograph the 1914 version of The Golem and G. W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street and Secrets of a Soul. Wegener, a Max Reinhardt protégé, acted in or directed (or both) The Golem and its more famous 1920 remake, along with several Ernst Lubitsch films, Rex Ingram’s The Magician, and numerous films for the Nazis. In 1926, Henrik Galeen took Hanns Heinz Ewers’s story for The Student of Prague and remade it with the great Conrad Veidt as Der Student. Ewers was later the chronicler of Nazi icon Horst Wessel, who was made famous by Wegener’s 1933 film performance.
Rye’s film was a clear forerunner of the German Expressionist style and psyche, making it all the more a pity that he died so young, a tragedy that perhaps rivals Jean Vigo’s death at twenty-nine. Although shot in naturalistic locations in Prague, Rye’s imaginative facility with the camera evoked the Faust legend, E. T. A. Hoffman, and Edgar Allan Poe. If Rye had lived a normal lifespan, he might have been confronted with the choice between his native Denmark and his proto-Nazi compatriots and collaborators.