THE INDIAN TOMB (Joe May, 1921)

Fritz Lang intended to direct this film. He helped Thea von Harbou write the script, which was based on her 1917 novella. In 1922, Lang and Harbou married. (The marriage lasted until Harbou joined the Nazi Party and Lang fled Germany, eventually settling in the U.S.) The 3½-hour, two-part lavish adventure in India (filmed in Germany), Das indische Grabmal erster Teil—Die Sendung des Yoghi and Das indische Grabmal zweiter Teil—Der Tiger von Eschnapur, ended up being directed by Joe May, who had pleaded Lang’s inexperience to the studio. Lang, though, returned to the material, filming his own version in the late 1950s.
     The Maharajah of Bengal plans on entombing alive his unfaithful wife; he has a yogi bring over from England an architect to design the tomb—a point of interest, since the wife’s lover, whom the Maharajah has imprisoned, is a British officer. The Maharajah is thus also taking revenge against British colonialism, but little of this irony, apparently, survived May’s superficial treatment of the material.
     I say “apparently” because I stopped watching this maddeningly boring movie after the first part. It is nothing but visual storytelling—bastard cinema. A good many visual devices are applied, but they are decoratively rather than expressively used. May’s fixed camera never becomes a stabilizing coordinate in tandem with fabulous imagery, as happens in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924). There are okay moments—for instance, the willed disembodied hand of the yogi traversing the study and confiscating a letter, which the architect has left behind for his fiancée, before she can discover and read it; but these offer only the faintest resistance to the film’s sluggish pace and turgid melodrama. The lepers, the tigers—the sickly and the exotic stuff: none of this leaps to life.

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