Sunday, November 11, 2012
The Indian Tomb, Parts One and Two (1921)
When the European public of the 1920s imagined India, what picture did they conjure in their minds? Was it a realistic one? Could it be? Certainly, most of them had never seen the place.
Presumably, some of the filmmakers whose work the public consumed, had. But filmmakers, for the most part, seek to entertain. So when they set a film in India, they made this India the stuff of fantasy, with beautiful dancers and ecstatic priests, and heathen monuments hewn from rock, all of it encroached upon by jungles filled with terrible beasts. This place was defined by its otherness to the West. Its people were outsiders, even when depicted in their own land.
There were, so far as I know, no real Indians at all in The Indian Tomb, producer/director Joe May’s 1921 diptych about a white architect commissioned to build a new Taj Mahal. The Indian Tomb stars a selection of white actors, many of them in brownface, including Conrad Veidt, who plays its tragic antagonist, Prince Ayan. Set in Bengal, it was filmed in Berlin. It was a European movie, made for European, and North American, white audiences.
These are reasons to dislike the film; and for these reasons, I did. But I also enjoyed both parts of The Indian Tomb, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. First, a brief summary:
A fearsome but somber man, Ayan, prince of Bengal, wishes a tomb to be built for his princess, Savitri, whom he loves passionately. He wants a famed European architect, Herbert Rowland, to design it. Both Herbert (Olaf Fønss) and the Prince are eminent men for whom worldly power has proven unfulfilling. The prince’s need for the building meets Herbert’s need for a grand project, and so the white man travels to India to begin his work. Only once he’s there does he discover that the princess, for whom he will build this tomb, is still alive.
But to sum up The Indian Tomb this way is to ignore the things you’ll remember most about it. The film begins not with the commission, but with the Prince’s discovery of a yogi, buried underground. This yogi, Ramigani (Bernhard Goetzke) has slid into a meditative state so deep as to simulate death. It is decreed that, upon being revived, this yogi must serve the one who revived him. However, he must also work to reveal to this man the futility of worldly desire.
This is both sillier, and more thoughtful than it sounds. Silly, because the idea of a man surviving buried in the earth, without food, water, or oxygen, for years, is beyond belief. Sillier still, because the yogi emerges from his trance with literal super-powers, including clairvoyance, astral projection, teleportation, and telekinesis.
And yet…one who possessed such a powerful servant would be tempted to abuse that power, wouldn't he? And the role of the prince, as crafted by the brilliant Veidt, is one of an already bitter and tortured man, standing upon the precipice of corruption, looking down.
Herbert, too, is challenged by the yogi in thoughtful ways. The yogi appears at Herbert’s home in Europe; tells him of the commission, expresses confidence he will accept it even after he refuses—but warns him that to succeed, he must abandon his old life. Any vestiges of that life, and the desires they embody, will prevent him from realizing the “unborn child of his soul.” This may be the only thing in The Indian Tomb that remotely resembles real Hindu thought.
The Indian Tomb was scripted by the husband and wife team of Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, from Von Harbou’s novel. Yet May avoids the trap that Lang himself had fallen into with his own two-part adventure film, The Spiders (1919/1920): a stiff and plodding affair with an Oriental theme and too great an appreciation for its own visuals. In The Indian Tomb, scenes are brief, especially by silent film standards; May often cuts between two equally pressing situations to keep things moving. And indeed, they fly by. Only Griffith’s best work moves faster.
The pace of the film also helps to hide one of its big weaknesses: the sets. Mostly bogus and cheap looking by today’s standards, I don’t think they would have impressed audiences in 1921 either. Not, at least, if those people had seen the Fall of Babylon, as depicted in Intolerance six years before. The sets never shake that backlot feel, and May only emphasizes this by framing them so tightly. Much better was yet to come from German silent cinema.
Though its vistas may fall short, The Indian Tomb’s special effects are a remarkable, if hokey, success. We see the yogi appear and disappear at will; cure the diseased, and make objects move when and where he wishes. Most memorably, he sends his own, disembodied hand to Herbert’s workshop to retrieve a letter the architect wrote to his fiance, Irene; that she might not follow him to India. One describe moments like these to someone else to spark their interest in a film. Wouldn’t you now like to see these scenes for yourself?
Irene (Mia May), proves no shrinking violet. She successfully tails the dreamy Herbert to India and stands up to the prince more courageously than he does. Her strength and resourcefulness is appealing to modern viewers. Yet I also appreciated the film’s determination to make her presence a negative—in the literal sense that Herbert, by interacting with her, dooms himself. She is her own person—in many ways, a more impressive one—but she is also a thing he loves from the life he left behind. The yogi did warn him.
The Indian Tomb can intoxicate you at times. As a viewer, you try to keep a safe distance from it: You’re aware of its cultural freight, the problematic brownface, its zealous indifference to the truth about a country that is only alien if one wants it to be. Yet the plotting is good, and the action, continuous. There’s a yogi with powers. Leprosy, costumes. Tigers and elephants—real ones, even if they come from a German zoo. And there’s Veidt’s acting—that marvelous, silent alchemy: his inner turmoil made outward pain through exquisite, long, angular gesturing. The prince, as played by Veidt, is a man to watch, and because of that, no rotten deed he commits in The Indian Tomb can cost him all of our sympathy.
Veidt’s so good, he almost makes us forget that he’s a white German man in dark makeup. Almost, but not quite; and as he goes, so too goes this phony land that we’ve suspended our judgments toward. What were Europeans of the 1920s thinking of when they thought of India? Themselves, in it. But only until the lights came up.
Where to find The Indian Tomb:
The Indian Tomb, Part One: The Mission of the Yogi, and Part Two: The Tiger of Eschnapur, will play back to back this Saturday, November 14, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox; part of the retrospective, Indian Expressionism.