Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Student of Prague (1913)

With a screenplay by the controversial German author Hanns Heinz Ewers (author of Alraune and the classic horror story "The Spider"), IMBD gives "The Student of Prague" the distinction of being the first horror film.

The story is another iteration of the Faustian bargain, but is effective in a way that most silent films are not for modern viewers. The Devil or his emissary has once again struck a deal with a hapless soul, in this instance stealing the very soul from the student's mirror. Mischief and tragedy result as Balduin's doppelganger materialises to interfere in his courtship of the Countess. This 41 minute film builds an adequate atmosphere of paranoia in portraying Balduin's realization of the full significance of his bargain. The special effects utilized in this 97 year old film are restrained yet effective (the double stepping from the mirror is like something out of a Bunuel film).

A good appreciation of this film and its context as a forerunner of German Expressionism in film can be found at

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Blaugast: A Novel of Decline by Paul Leppin

Paul Leppin's Blaugast: A Novel of Decline is a chronicle of the degeneration and humiliation of a debauched syphilitic in old Prague. Blaugast is an office worker who spends his down time among the lowlifes of the saloons and whorehouses. Stumbling home one evening, he bumps into an old school chum who intrigues him with a question: "Are you interested in catastrophes?" He follows this fellow Schobotzki home where he meets, and invites home, the prostitute Wanda. Wanda quickly moves in, and, pleased to have a roof over her head and a free lunch in Blaugast, begins to indulge his every sexual whim and fantasy with her troupe of whores. There is a touch of the fetishist in Blaugast, and the sexual tableaus become more and more elaborate while Blaugast sinks deeper into debauchery, forsaking everything for these pleasures. When in a post-coital torpor, the prostitute Johanna confronts him accusingly: “Why are you doing this? It isn't worthy of you!" Faced with the shame of his degeneracy, Blaugast beings a downward spiral. He goes from master of the house to its pathetic servant - shining shoes, fetching water, sleeping in a dirty corner and soaking up the abuse of Wanda's “gentleman” callers.

He abandons the house to roam, as his syphilitic condition becomes more pronounced, ravaging him mentally and physically. He performs - for the amusement of tradesmen, the slumming well-to-do, and their whores - despicable acts for drinks of cognac; he accosts school girls in the park; his body begins to fold upon himself and his mind turns to mush; he remembers his past, sometimes cruel, encounters with women. Meanwhile, the disreputable Schobotzki, who runs a sleazy costume shop for the debauched, is being tormented by vandals, and is looking for retribution. This leads to a final brutal humiliation for Blaugast, a descent into the deepest pit of hell. But there remains a chance for grace, for some redemption in the arms of a lonely fallen angel….

Paul Leppin (1878- 1945) an older contemporary of Kafka, was a German Czech working as an accountant by day, and a decadent bohemian by night. As his reputation grew among the artistic set, his work was denounced as pornographic by the authorities. Still, he became a bridge between the Czech and German artistic communities, having been hailed by the Expressionist movement in Berlin. By age 60, his work was receiving recognition in prizes and awards. Disease and the Nazi occupation of Prague shadowed Leppin’s final years: he was tormented by the Gestapo (who may have suspected him of being a Jew) and his own syphilitic dementia. He died in April 1945. Twisted Spoon Press has helped rediscover and revive some of Leppin’s considerable oeuvre in English translation. This edition of Blaugast includes useful appendices on Leppin and his work.