Film Reviews

The Indian Tomb (1921) – Blu-ray Review

Eureka Entertainment continue to expand their silent-era movie offerings through their Masters of Cinema range with the release of 1921’s The Indian Tomb.  Remade by Fritz Lang in 1959, this first version was directed by Joe May, from a screenplay by Lang and his future wife, the original book’s author Thea von Harbou, and starred Conrad Veidt, best known for his role in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs.

This is a two-disc presentation, reflecting that the film is in two parts.  Disc one is the first part, ‘Mission of the Yogi’, with disc two (also housing the film’s sole on-screen bonus feature), being ‘The Tiger of Eschnapur’.  Across the story, a German architect, Herbert Rowland (Olaf Fonss) is commissioned by the Maharajah of Bengal, Ayan (Veidt) to design and build the most beautiful tomb in the World for his wife Savitri (Erna Morena).  The commission is actioned by Ayan awakening the Yogi, Ramigani (Bernhard Goetzke) from his hibernation (the Yogi have the power to transcend time, read minds and grant wishes), who can transport himself anywhere at will, and can materialise in Rowland’s home.  The deal put to Herbert is that he must travel immediately and not tell anyone where he is going, even his fiancée Irene (Mia May, wife of the director).

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When the architect arrives in Eschnapur (Bengal), he learns the horrible truth that the Maharajah’s wife is not dead, and Ayan is looking to bury her alive as punishment for her affair with an Englishman, MacAllen (Paul Richter).  Staying in the hopes of calming Ayan and changing his mind, affairs are complicated further by the arrival of Irene who, despite Ramigani’s attempts to block her efforts, has discovered where her man has gone and arrives in Bengal.  Kept separate from Herbert, Ayan starts to see the love the couple have and want this for himself, falling for Irene.  With the help of Ramigani he sets to work winning her for himself, conspiring to have her fiancé contract leprosy.  At the same time, he is looking to lure MacAllen in order to feed him to his tiger.

Now, this is not the deepest or most involved plot in the world, yet the film’s running time is around four hours.  This is reflected in an excessively languid pace, a feature that will alienate many looking to learn more of the cinema of the time.  It is not as accessible as many similar offerings in the Eureka range.  That said, it is very lavish for its time, with part two, in particular, featuring some wonderfully expansive sets.  Veidt demonstrates an impressive expressiveness, even garnering our sympathy for his loneliness, despite being something of a monster.  We may even convince ourselves he is merely spoiled, wrong-headed and in pain, rather than inherently evil.  Finally, there are some in-camera effects that work very well for this era, giving the film a mystical bent that sets it apart from other films in the Masters of Cinema range – certainly the pre-talkie offerings.

Extras are light, with the sole extra the 46-minute long ‘Turbans over Woltersdorf’.  This video essay is created by David Cairns and Fiona Watson.  They are veterans of this series, with ‘The Face Deceives’ from The Man Who Laughs, and ‘Too Romantic, Too Ghastly’ from The Love of Jeanne Ney being amongst their previous contributions.  This is longer than either of those, and the extra space afforded them is of benefit.  Presenting, as with the film, in a number of chapters, they start with discussion of the original book – complete with a Covid-era Zoom interview with a contemporary Indian author about the themes of the work.  Moving on to the career of the director, they look at his early short films, and mystery thrillers.  May’s contribution to the latter’s genre appears to have been to make his detectives problem solvers, rather than sensationalise, or focus on action.  We take a quick tour through his distinctive, if sometimes trashy, work.  Cairns and Watson look at the evolution of this over time, with his early work, including this film, featuring completely static camera work.

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With regard to this film, Watson is great value on the aesthetic choices, and how the book was adapted here to lend itself to more interesting locations.  The essay as a whole is at great pains to put the context of the times into discussion of decisions (particularly in casting) that would not be acceptable now.  In taking that context into account they are able to find the complexities in the film’s character work, this is backed by the testimony, taken from a section of a lecture from an Indian film preservation expert who felt that much of the film would be relevant if made a century later.

As with previous works, there is strong discussion of comparison with written text, with good analysis of what – and whom – works in the film, and why – all with a little more breathing space for discussion and evidence than previous works.  We take a quick look at the relevant parts of the career of Fritz Lang, his work on this film, relationship with the book’s author, and his 1950’s remake of the film.  Then, as with previous works, onto the rest of everyone’s career.  The best nugget of this is Joe May helping the great Billy Wilder to get into Hollywood, before, himself, slipping down into B Movies, such as an Invisible Man sequel.  Finally, we look at some of the sets and remnants of such seen as they are today, all of which brings this, as history, alive.

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The usual accompanying booklet runs to an attractive 24 pages (the artwork for the film is pleasant, in general).  This is taken up almost entirely by an essay from – familiar to fans of this range – Philip Kemp, ‘A Passage to India: Von Harbou’s Indische Grabmal on Screen’.  Aided by the sheer length of the essay, this may be one of the finest Eureka have committed to one of these booklets, with an exhaustive discussion of the author, the book, this adaptation, the relationship with Lang, and the road to and making of the 1950’s version.  This tops off a decent release, with two thoughtful extras, in the video essay and booklet, of a film that definitely drags for the modern audience, but that demonstrates lavish, well-made work from an era of cinema thankfully not entirely lost to us.

The Indian Tomb is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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