Day One, San Francisco Sielnt Film Festival
The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg
Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer
The opening night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival featured a screening of The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg (1927) (available on VHS from MGM). The film was introduced by film writer Mick LaSalle, author of Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. He commented that we would walk out of the theater feeling what the audience felt seventy years ago. Yes and no. I think people now and then experienced the same sadness at the ending, but I think the modern audience had a different expectation. It was interesting to hear the audience reaction to the film at the after party; several people said to me that they thought the prince Karl would go back to the barmaid, Kathi and that there would be a happy ending. I think the original audience probably fully expected him to renounce love for duty. Ultimately this film concentrates not on doomed romantic love but on personal sacrifice.
The love story itself is rather weak; it lacks the transcendent quality of Sunrise (1927) (DVD, Fox) or Seventh Heaven (1927) (VHS, Critic's Choice). However, the director Ernst Lubitsch perfectly captures first love- awkwardness, lustfulness, idealism and hopefulness all rolled together- simultaneously intensely felt and ludicrous. This love is predicated on youthfulness and nativity, it is not the kind of love that can exist in the real world, only in a nostalgic Germany full of beer gardens long before the devastation of The Great War. It can only exist in this time of Karl's life while he is still only a prince and a youth. Kathi when she first meets Karl remarks that "A prince, after all, is a human being." A prince may be just a man, but a king is both more and less than a man. For Karl to fulfill his destiny, the love itself is not the important thing, the renunciation of it is.
Karl's journey as a character in the film from his arrival on the train as a boy to assume his position as the heir apparent to his marital carriage ride at the end reflects his inner journey from child to man. When we first see Karl, he is a child clinging to his nurse, terrified of his uncle, the mustachioed stern-faced King. Lubitsch keeps the King inhuman at all times, he never seems to express any emotion at all. This is Karl's future; the regal outsider. Later, a group of boys admire the young prince's photograph in a shop window and remark that it must be wonderful to be a prince. Lubitsch shows us the reality, a sad faced boy behind a barred gate looking longingly at a group of boys playing rowdily with a ball. He imitates them on his side of the gate but cannot join them.
The King sends Karl's nurse away. The boy runs wildly after her but is stopped short by the presence of The King. The nurse is replaced by a tutor, Jean Hersholt in a wonderfully warm performance. The tutor Juttner mediates between the loving world of early childhood and the adult world of responsibility. He's Karl's teacher and loving friend. He accompanies Karl to Heidelberg where Karl finally gets a chance, as a student, to be one of the groups. He is accepted by the other students, drinks with them and finds love with Kathi. This is temporary. The king grows ill, and we see the painful process of Karl losing all that he loves, his Kathi, his tutor and his friends.
At the end of the film, he rides in a glorious wedding procession, emotionally bereft. An old couple looks at him and remark "It must be wonderful to be a king!" Lubitsch deftly expresses so much in this moment. It echoes two earlier scenes of Karl's photograph being admired with a similar sentiment expressed by the peasants who only see his outer reality, wealth and privilege. His people envy him because they don't see the sacrifice he has made for them. The choice of an old married couple underscores the irony of what they say. This couple has what Karl has sacrificed, someone to love and love in return.