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April 22, 2022

The Indian Tomb


Das indische Grabmal
Joe May - 1921
Kino Classics BD Region A

I was not prepared for how different the first film version of The Indian Tomb is from Fritz Lang's version. Lang co-wrote the screenplay with then wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou for the 1921 film. Lang's 1959 version bears little resemblance other than having European characters in a fantasy India, and a few shared plot points. Both films have a woman dancing in front of a snake, but it May's film the scene is brief ending with a quick, but fatal snakebite. Lang's film is remembered mostly for its much longer scene with Debra Paget doing the hoochie coochie in front of a very large and very fake cobra. It may also be worth noting that Lang's film was actually the third version, with the second version released in 1938.

So we have British architect Herbert Rowland invited to India by a maharajah, Ayan III. The invitation comes via a yogi, Ramigani, who materializes in Rowland's house. Ramigani is a tall, imposing man, who seems to also be omniscient, outsmarting everyone by disconnecting telephones, stealing letters and causing the wheels of cars to fall off with his powerful mental telepathy. Rowland is convinced to go to India without letting anyone else know. His fiancee, Irene, is concerned enough to uncover enough clues to lead her in pursuit of Rowland in India. It turns out that Ayan might be rich and powerful, with a castle protected by a lake with hungry crocodiles, but he is also very unhappy with his wife, Princess Savitri. The princess has revealed her affection for the adventurer Mac Allen by giving him one very big ring, a gift from Ayan. Rowland questions Ayan's desire to build a tomb for Savitri in advance, causing both he and Irene to remain as house guests with restrictions at the maharajah's castle.

I will refer to The Indian Tomb as one film even though, like the remakes, it was released as two separate features. The film is probably best appreciated on its own terms. As mentioned, this is a fantasy India where part of the plot hinges on half-baked understandings of Hinduism, Buddhism and Yoga. One room that is apparently devoted to religious devotion has what looks like a very large menorah. Much of the German cast is in brown face. Olaf Fonns was 39 years old when he appeared as Herbert Rowland but already looked like somebody's grandfather. Joe May's wife, Mia, was already quite matronly at age 37. For a fiancee who steals her mother's pearls and hires a plane to fly from England to India, Joe May might have been better off casting his 18 year old daughter, the actress Eva, rather than Mama Mia. Bernhard Goetzke, the mysterious yogi, makes enough of an impression that it is no surprise that Fritz Lang cast him in three of his films. Not quite as tall, but almost as lean, is Conrad Veidt as Ayan. The name is from Sanskrit translated as "gift from God". Is it coincidental that it is one letter away from Aryan? The Indian Tomb was made at a time when India was part of German popular culture. Ayan may be the villain, if not as thoroughly villainous as Ramigani, but he is not entirely unsympathetic either.

The sets are impressive in their sheer scale of size. It is like Joe May saw Intolerance and said to himself, "I can do that!". The actors are dwarfed by several of the sets. Unless one is totally jaded from exposure to CGI, there is delight in seeing what were the state of the art special effects of a century ago, mostly seen in the first half of the film.

The blu-ray was sourced from a 2K digital restoration from 2016 which in turn was from a 1994 version assemble primarily from surviving French and Czech prints. The film is also tinted as it was at the time of release. A supplement written and narrated by Scottish film scholars David Cairns and Fiona Watson offers there assessment, plus that of other film scholars, on The Indian Tomb.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 22, 2022 06:33 AM