Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 30th of March, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the last screening and discussion session of this term, which will take place on the 30th of March, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Frances’ suggestion: The Student of Prague (1913, Stellan Rye, 85mins).

Student of Prague

Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The Student of Prague (1913) tells the story of Balduin – the student in question – who is a popular and skilled fencer but feels unhappy and unfulfilled in life. He becomes interested in a countess after rescuing her from a fall in a lake, although she is already betrothed to be married to her cousin. Balduin hopes he can change this, and better his life, by making a deal with a strange man named Scapinelli. Scapinelli promises Balduin great riches and, in exchange, Scapinelli can take whatever he wishes from the student’s apartment. Balduin signs a contract agreeing to these terms and Scapinelli then makes his choice: he touches the full-length mirror in the room and Balduin’s reflection suddenly emerges. This double – now a distinct figure, unattached to its original form and freed from the constraints of the mirror – walks out of the room. Balduin attempts to suppress his amazement and worry over this incident as he soon concentrates on wooing the countess. However Balduin’s doppelganger re-emerges and begins to haunt his former owner…

The Student of Prague is a silent, German film starring Paul Wegener as the titular character. The film has had a few remakes (and re-cuts), including ones in 1926 and 1935, and different versions of the original have subsequently been released. One 2004 DVD release, for example, has a running time of approximately 50 minutes. As will be explained by the opening of the version screened today, details gathered from press releases and exhibitions notes reveal that the film should be over 80 minutes long. Today’s film has been restored by Filmmuseum München and is a more complete version of the film. This cut of the film thus contains expanded scenes which allow for the development of some of the supporting characters, and in particular that of the ‘wandering girl’.

Like many of the other films screened in the season, the double figure in The Student of Prague is an evil, trouble-making doppelganger. Balduin’s reflection stalks his original owner and sabotages his efforts to seduce the countess. As we have discussed previously in relation to this theme, it seems impossible for the double and the original figure to co-exist in these stories. The narrative of The Student of Prague explores the intolerability of this situation but with an additional twist: by removing Balduin’s reflection, Scapinelli effectively removes an aspect of Balduin directly – his soul. This aspect is confirmed by the film’s melodramatic ending which is reminiscent of Simon’s efforts to deal with an unwanted doppelganger in The Double (2013) screened a few weeks ago.

The link between the double and the soul is one of the avenues explored by Otto Rank in his investigation into this uncanny phenomenon in his work The Double, written in 1914. In this work Rank is interested in psychoanalytical investigations and, like his contemporary Freud, is inspired by the recurring themes present in German literature, one of which is the double. Rank, like Freud, calls the double uncanny: for the protagonists in the stories analysed by Rank, the experience of viewing one’s own doppelganger is an unnerving and eerie experience, which usually results in injury or death. Rank wants to understand the attraction of including a doppelganger character in a story and so he adopts an anthropological approach – albeit framed by psychoanalytical interpretations – and explores the history of the doppelganger in various cultures. One aspect he discovers is how traditionally one’s own reflection or shadow was thought of as a double. In this respect, the doppelganger is intimately related to the original figure and completely inseparable. It is for these reasons that the double, he argues, is closely related to death and the soul. Ranks writes: “Folklorists are in agreement in emphasizing that the shadow is coequivalent with the human soul.” (Rank, 1914, 75)

The Student of Prague appears to engage with this type of doppelganger, as Balduin’s double is not a sibling or coincidental lookalike but a ‘part’ of him; his reflection. The link between The Student of Prague and Rank’s research also runs deeper as the film was a big inspiration for the writer. Indeed, Rank begins his book with a detailed summary and analysis of the film as the plot and imagery of The Student of Prague provides several avenues for Rank to explore the figure of the doppelganger. Rank describes the experience of watching the film and its subject matter as uncanny, as he writes: “An obscure but unavoidable feeling takes hold of the spectator and seems to betray that deep human problems are being dealt with here [in The Student of Prague].  The uniqueness of cinematography in visibly portraying psychological events calls our attention, with exaggerated clarity, to the fact that the interesting and meaningful problems of man’s relation to himself – and the fateful disturbance of this relation – finds here an imaginative representation.” (Rank, 7)

What is significant is that Rank’s musings on The Student of Prague extend to think about the medium of cinema itself. Cinema, itself a form of doubling, is compared by Rank to “dream-work”. He is particularly fascinated by how this technology – which was still relatively in its infancy at the time of Rank’s writing – has the ability to both represent the physical presence of the doppelganger and evoke the larger themes of melodrama inherent in such stories. These themes include: a crisis of the individual; thwarted romance; love rivals; and the dissolution of family units. Rank observes:

It may perhaps turn out that cinematography, which in numerous ways reminds us of the dream-work, can also express certain psychological facts and relationships – which the writer often is unable to describe with verbal clarity – in such clear and conspicuous imagery that it facilitates our understanding of them. (Rank, 4)

The filmic representation of the double is a topic we can discuss after the screening. Do join us to watch an early example of the doppelganger theme on-screen, and see why The Student of Prague proved so influential for Rank’s work.

I hope to see you there!


Rank, O. [1914] 1971. The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 9th of March, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for our next screening and discussion session, which will take place on the 9th of March, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Frances’ choice: The Double (2013, Richard Ayoade, 93 mins).


Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

There is a moment at the beginning of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double when the main protagonist, Yakov Petrovitch Golyadkin, is first waking up in the morning and it is observed: ‘For two minutes, however, [Golyadkin] lay in his bed without moving, as though he were not yet quite certain whether he were awake or still asleep, whether all that was going on around him were real and actual, or the continuation of his confused dreams.’ This description imaginatively captures the experience of watching the 2013 film of the same name, directed by Richard Ayoade and starring Jesse Eisenberg. Just like Golyadkin’s reflections in the Russian short story, we as viewers of the film are left wondering at the movie’s conclusion whether what we have watched has a logical explanation, or whether it is the product of the protagonist’s ‘confused dreams.’ The film is an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s work but our main protagonist is now Simon James. Simon lives a dull and monotonous life, spending most of his waking moments working in a dreary office, where he is ignored and shunned by his colleagues. The rest of his time is spent unsuccessfully wooing a work colleague and neighbour Hannah, who he watches in her apartment through a telescope when at home. Simon’s life changes dramatically, however, when a new employee appears at work and is the exact physical double of Simon. This doppelgänger – named James Simon – is physically identical to Simon in every way but the former’s life could not be more different. Where Simon is reserved and his work efforts remain unacknowledged by his peers, James is confident, successful and popular with everyone. James even manages to seduce Hannah. Simon’s bewilderment at the situation is heightened by the fact that no one else sees James as a double: only Simon can perceive the uncanny resemblance between the two men. Simon soon realises that James’s presence in his life is intolerable and the story focuses on Simon’s attempts to resolve the situation.

The Double is a British film which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and was critically well received. Ayoade updates Dostoyevsky’s story to a modern setting but the exact location and time setting of the film is not explicitly stated. The lack of spatial or temporal orientation helps to establish the unsettling, detached and bleak tone of the film and the narrative’s conclusion remains ambiguous. The story’s portrayal of a doppelgänger – and particularly how this physical impossibility is not acknowledged or even noticed by any other character except Simon – is key for creating this eerie mood. It is possible to see several influences at work in Ayoade’s film, including aspects of Kafka, Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, and the film’s use of musical extracts from Franz Schubert’s Der Doppelgänger (which also tells the story of a man’s confrontation with his own double) helps to evoke the work of E.T.A Hoffmann. In this way The Double is uncanny in the Freudian sense of the word: through his analysis of Hoffmann’s work, Freud theorises that the figure of the double is undoubtedly uncanny, as the presence of identical bodies raises questions as to the uniqueness of an individual. The figure of the double also occupies a tentative position between life and death, and in Hoffmann’s tale this power has supernatural implications with the Sandman character. In many ways The Double is evocative of the story and tone of Hoffmann’s Der Sandman. Like Nathaniel in Hoffmann’s work, Simon is also the only protagonist within the diegesis who experiences the moment of seeing a double. In Nathaniel’s case, this doppelgänger is of the Sandman who reappears in various guises throughout the narrative. For Simon, it is his own body which is doubled through James. In both stories, the double figure is a disruptive force and a source of evil; it quickly becomes apparent that the protagonist and the doppelgänger cannot both exist. It also remains unclear how the events described in Der Sandman and The Double should be interpreted. Does the doppelgänger actually exist, or is he a product of the protagonist’s troubled mind? In a manner evocative of the earlier description in Dostoyevsky’s novel, Freud notes that Hoffmann ‘leaves us in doubt as to whether we are dealing with the initial delirium of the panic-stricken boy or an account of events that must be taken as real within the world represented in the tale.’

It is for these reasons that The Double operates quite differently from some the other films screened in this season on the double. The film features an actual doppelgänger whose presence is unexplained, unlike some of the other films where this doubling is explained, for example, through mistaken identity or sibling similarities. Yet the melodrama of the film stems, like the other stories shown, from the double character. In The Double it is James’s intrusion into Simon’s life which illuminates themes such as unrequited love, dysfunctional family units, a crisis of the self, the pain of loss and attempted suicide, and entrapment within an unfulfilling and mundane life. Despite these highly melodramatic themes, the tone of the film is difficult to articulate. The film’s opening demonstrates this well. We are introduced to Simon on a drab looking train on his way to work. There are few other characters occupying the carriage where Simon sits silently, and yet an intimidating stranger demands Simon move. Simon quietly and nervously acquiesces to the unreasonable demand. Similarly, moments later Simon attempts to leave the train but is constantly stopped by another passenger loading packages onto the carriage who ignores Simon’s need to alight. The scene successfully encapsulates Simon’s tragic existence and it is frustrating, saddening and uncomfortable to watch. Yet the scene is also darkly humorous, as the ridiculousness of the situation becomes comic. It is the complexity of the film’s tone and the ambiguity of its narrative which makes The Double a compelling viewing experience and challenges the viewer to make sense of these strange and chaotic interactions. Should the events portrayed in The Double ultimately be interpreted as ‘real and actual’, or are they the product of ‘confused dreams’? It will be interesting to see what conclusions we draw in our discussion after the film.

I hope to see you there!