Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

The four-hour film Conrad Veidt/Joe May film, Das Indische Grabmal
by Paula Vitaris

Atlanta was the place to be last May (1998) for Conrad Veidt fans, thanks to a rare screening at Emory University of the 1921 epic film The Indian Tomb. Presented by Emory's Film Studies and German departments in conjunction with the Silent Film Society of Atlanta, the four-hour, two-part film was screened over two nights, May 5 and 6, with piano accompaniment by Frances Barber. The fully restored and tinted 35mm print from the M�nchner Filmmuseum had previously been shown to great acclaim at the 1996 Pordenone Film Festival and has also aired on German television.

Bill Eggert, founder and executive director of the Silent Film Society of Atlanta (SFSA), was especially pleased to co-sponsor The Indian Tomb with Emory. Eggert, a long-time admirer of Veidt -- he considers him ''the consummate artist'' -- has programmed a number of Veidt films for the SFSA since he founded the group in 1991, including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Beloved Rogue, and The Man Who Laughs. Eggert hopes to schedule The Man Who Laughs for a repeat screening this October (1998).

The Indian Tomb originated as as a 1917 pulp novella by Thea von Harbou, an actress and writer married to actor Rudolph Klein-Rogge. When Von Harbou met Joe May, one of Germany's most prominent producers and directors, May hired her as a scriptwriter and suggested turning The Indian Tomb into a film.

May owned a 50-acre film complex located in Woltersdorf, a suburb of Berlin. He had purchased the property after World War I and by 1919 had transformed it into a completely self-sufficient studio with its own power plant, known informally as ''Maytown''. The Woltersdorf technical staff was capable of reproducing any locale on a grand scale, and fifty films were shot there over the years, including such extravangant, crowd-pleasing serials as May's In Vino Veritas and Die Herrin der Welt (The Mistress of the World). Maytown fell on hard times during the worldwide depression of the 1930s, and in 1932, with Nazism on the rise, May and his actress wife Mia May left Germany, worked in France and England and then moved to Hollywood. After May's film career faltered, he and Mia took over the management of a restaurant called ''The Blue Danube'', a favorite gathering spot for European emigr�s, including Conrad and Lily Veidt. Joe May died in 1954.

When May hired Von Harbou in 1919 as a scriptwriter, he introduced her to a promising young writer and director named Fritz Lang who had just written and directed a hit adventure film, Die Spinnen. May assigned the pair the movie adaption of Von Harbou's The Indian Tomb. The novella, with its exotic setting -- the Indian state of Eschnapur -- and its equally exotic characters, would fit right in the other with escapist crowd-pleasers May produced and directed for a nation weary of war and inflation.

Lang and von Harbou quickly found they shared many interests, including a passion for foreign lands, particularly India. Eventually Harbou divorced Klein-Rogge and married Lang, writing or co-writing all of Lang's films until his hasty departure from Germany in 1933, the same year he and Von Harbou divorced.

Lang fully expected to direct The Indian Tomb, but while he was on location in the Bavarian Alps filming Das wanderne Bild (another collaboration with von Harbou), he learned that Joe May had announced that he would be directing the film. The American company Famous Players Lasky/Paramount had recently entered the German film industry under the name of Europaische Film-Allianz (EFA) and put an enormous sum of money at May's disposal. May told Lang that the investors were nervous about such an extravagant production in the hands of a newcomer, but the real reason May assumed direction was that he was sure The Indian Tomb would be a success and he wanted his name on it. Lang was incensed over the loss of The Indian Tomb and vowed never to work again for May. Nearly 40 years later, still enchanted by the story, Lang filmed a much revamped, but equally long and grandiose remake that some Lang buffs, particularly the French, consider to be one of his greatest films.

Von Harbou and Lang's scenario divided The Indian Tomb into two parts, The Indian Tomb and The Tiger of Eschnapur, the latter title referring to both to the tigers kept by Veidts prince and to the prince himself. The Indian Tomb was a film of massive scale with a budget of 20 million marks, an enormous sum even for an age of rampant inflation in Germany. May employed 2,000 extras for the crowd scenes and put 300 crew members and artists to work constructing the exteriors and interiors of the royal palace and temples, as well as subterranean vaults, dungeons and caves, a tiger pen, the eponymous tomb perched atop an enormous staircase, the British barracks, and sets for scenes located England. The exteriors were filmed on location around the Woltersdorf area, which doubled for the jungles, rivers and cliffs of Eschnapur.

The Indian Tomb was Conrad Veidt's only film directed by Joe May. His role, the imperious Prince Ayan, maharajah of Eschnapur, seems tailor-made to exploit the actors exotic persona and powerful, ambiguous sexuality. Ayan, in a cold fury over the unfaithfulness of his wife Savitri (Erna Morena), is determined to build her a tomb and to immure her in it. He orders a yogi with mystical powers named Ramagani (Bernhard Goetzke) to secretly bring the English architect Herbert Rowland (Olaf Fonss) to Eschnapur to design and build the tomb. Distraught by Herbert's disappearance, his wife Irene (Mia May) tracks him to Eschnapur. There she meets Ayan, who is instantly attracted to her, but she sticks to her mission to find Herbert. Meanwhile, Ayan orders the capture of Savitris lover, the caddish British officer Mac Allan (Paul Richter) and has Mac Allan thrown to his tigers. Ayan finally allows Irene to see Herbert; to her horror, he has been cursed and is now a leper. Ramagani magically cures Herbert after Irene agrees to submit herself to Ayan, but she ultimately refuses him and she and Herbert escape, taking Savitri with them. Ayan immediately pursues, but the chase ends abruptly when he catches up with them and Savitri throws herself off a cliff, rather than let herself be the cause once again of the death of others. Herbert and Irene decide to remain in India and honor Savitri's sacrifice by building her tomb. As they depart the completed memorial, they pass the once-magnificent Ayan, now bereft and unkempt, lying on the steps leading to the tomb.

The Indian Tomb premiered at UFAs flagship theater, the UFA Palast am Zoo in Berlin. The reception by the German public was disappointing. Lotte Eisner, in her biography of Fritz Lang, quotes a review from Der Film which called The Indian Tomb the world's greatest film, and praised the stunt work. But the same reviewer also chided the film for logical and psychological weakness, particularly finding fault with the Princes propensity for weeping and revealing his despair over his wifes unfaithfulness to Westerners - i.e., the Rowlands -- he has just met. The reviewer also found Veidt's Prince to be ''a western-type neurotic who completely lacks the proverbial majestic solemnity of Indian Royalty,'' although Veidt's performance was not without merit: ''The Prince's collapse by the corpse of his still ardently beloved wife is of great human beauty.''

The American release was disastrous. In the face of a vicious critical reception in the United States for May's earlier serial, Die Herrin der Welt, the American distributor cut The Indian Tomb from the original running time of nearly four hours into less than two. David Pratt in his notes for the SFSA/Emory screening observed that The Indian Tombwas dumped into theaters as summer filler and quickly moved through a truncated release schedule... American critics were absolutely savage, complaining about the absurdity of the melodrama, the continuity problems resulting from its condensation and the casting of May's 36-year-old wife, whom the trade journal Film Daily complained was ''so big that she looked like she could overpower her Asian captors.''

How does The Indian Tomb stand up today? Watching The Indian Tomb is like opening up a time capsule. As visual spectacle, it continues to amaze -- the sets are overwhelming and the lighting is exquisite -- but the actors overly melodramatic performance styles and the creakiness of the kitschy story prevent the film from achieving a narrative greatness to equal its physical settings. The editing lingers over scenes and individual shots for what seems like eternity, distending time and stretching the story out far beyond what would be its normal span, and the extensive subplot of Mac Allan's pursuit, no doubt meant to inject some action-packed thrills into the movie, seems particularly interminable. The character is paper-thin and unsympathetic, failing completely to enlist audience concern.

Bill Eggert of the SFSA feels that The Indian Tomb doesnt translate well to modern audiences. It's grossly over-acted, and makes you wonder what was going on in the minds of the creative team behind it. [Emory Film Studies Professor] David Cook made a nice observation about The Indian Tomb. He said it was very operatic, and I think maybe that's the best way to look at it. The incredibly beautiful sets �.are what really sell that film. Of course anything Veidt does, even if he's overacting, is light-years better than people doing normal acting.

Veidt gives the film's most histronic performance, gesturing dramatically, glaring balefully, shifting from stillness to hysteria in a split second, particularly in the scene where he confesses his wifes unfaithfulness to Rowland and throws himself on a rock, weeping and wailing. Even so, through sheer magnetism he dominates every moment he is on screen, and in some scenes, he leaves histronics behind to create simple moments of true emotion. If there is one character who calls for such extremes treatment, it is the menacing Ayan, with his simmering rage, his cruelties and his obsessive love for his unhappy wife. The films most dazzling sequence belongs completely to Veidt, when he emerges, painted gold and clad in the flamboyant ceremonial dress of a god, from behind the doors of the temple altar to seduce the astonished Mia May. Anyone else would look positively ridiculous in such a costume and makeup, but Veidt is a hypnotic, erotic presence of great dignity. The other actors can only come off as second-best, although Mia May, despite her miscasting, does convey an earthy warmth, and Erna Morena is lovely as the doomed Savitri.

The Indian Tomb is itself, ironically, entombed in a defunct film aesthetic, but it remains a fascinating remnant of a vanished time in cinematic history and a worthy entry in the long and distinguished career of Conrad Veidt. Its easy to understand why the Pordenone audience was so enthralled. And it deserves a top-quality transfer to tape and laser disc, although truly, The Indian Tomb is a film that must be seen on the big screen to be appreciated in all its splendor.

SOURCES:
Eisner, Lotte, Fritz Lang. New York: Da Capo Press, 1976.
Jericho, Dirk, When Woltersdorf Was Still Hollywood,Berliner Morgenpost, February 16, 1997 (trans. H. Flippo).
McGilligan, Patrick, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. New York: St.Martins Press, 1997.
Kreimeier, Klaus, The UFA Story: A History of Germanys Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.
Pratt, David, Notes from the SFSA/Emory screening of The Indian Tomb.
Zolotow, Maurice, Billy Wilder in Hollywood. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

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