Passages to England: ‘The Indian Tomb’ (1921)

❉ Jon Dear reviews the 100th Anniversary edition of the Weimar Cinema epic, fully restored in 2K.

I’m starting this review with something that might be seen as a plug, but there’s a point to it I promise. I co-host a giallo podcast with my friend Dave Thomas, Due signori en giallo. The last one we recorded was for a film called Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (W. Germany. Alfred Vohrer, 1967), The Monk With the Whip, released in the US as The College Girl Murders. It was a good 25 minutes before I realised the film was supposed set in England (it’s based on an Edgar Wallace play) but it set me thinking about the assumptions we anglophones make about international cinema, and in particular historical international films. How is the UK being portrayed and why? What are the filmmakers really saying here?

When anglophonic films set their stories in foreign climes they usually have the characters speak English. Most sensible films just have those actors speak in their own voices, can you imagine Valkyrie (US, Brian Singer, 2008) if everyone was saying their lines in German accents, particularly Eddie Izzard? If you’ve seen House of Gucci (US. Ridley Scott, 2021) then you don’t need to, with Jared Leto ‘Allo ‘Allo-ing his way through the film. Italians don’t say “’’ow you say…” if they’re speaking Italian…

Of course The Indian Tomb has no such problem, it’s silent, the intertitles are in German, and it’s mainly set in India. But you do have to keep reminding yourself that the European characters are supposed to be British, which begs the question of where the filmmaker’ sympathies lie, three years after the Great War.

The Indian Tomb is a four hour globe spanning, exotic epic (split into two parts) that brings together the giants of Weimar Cinema on both sides of the camera: starring Conrad Veidt, written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, and directed by Joe May. It also cost a phenomenal 20m Deutschmarks. There was a lot riding on this film.

The script was adapted from Harbou’s own novel. Philip Kemp surmises the plot in the sleeve notes:

“A German architect, Michael Fürbringer, is summoned by Arada, Maharajah of Eschnapur, to design a magnificent tomb for the woman the Prince loved. Once in Eschnapur, he learns that the woman isn’t in fact dead, but has been unfaithful, and that she will be killed once her tomb has been constructed. Backed up by his fiancée Irene, who has managed to join him despite the Prince’s efforts to prevent her, he refuses the commission; and when it becomes evident that he will be held prisoner until he has completed the work, he and Irene contrive to escape the palace. They’re pursued into the mountains, and are about to be recaptured – when the novel abruptly concludes with a feeble “Oh, it was all a dream” ending.”

The script would expand considerably on this fairly straightforward premise, introducing a strong supernatural, mystical element in the character of Ramigani, a Yoghi (Bernhard Goetzke), disinterred from his living death and thus the (apparent) slave of Prince Ayan (Veidt). He is dispatched to England to secure the services of the great architect Herbert Rowland (Olaf Fønss) to design the tomb of his not quite dead wife, Princes Savitri (Erna Morena). Fortunately Ramigani is able to transport himself thousands of miles in an instant to the home of Rowland and can handily disable phones and crash cars with mental projection. All very impressive but as they return to India via conventional means, you have to wonder how long the car and ship, not to mention the crew, have been ready. Of course it’s easy to be cynical here and Goetzke is superbly understated. A still point around which other characters orbit in fear and wonder. 

The other main element introduced is the subplot involving Savitri and her cuckolding lover, the British officer Mac Allen (Paul Richter), who eventually meets a decidedly grizzly end in a tiger enclosure. Allen is shown to be dashing, brave, sexy and arrogant and you can’t help but feel the Germans are rather mocking the Brits (Lang would start writing scripts while wounded in the War). Similarly Rowland is pompous and somewhat ineffectual, needing the Yoghi’s magic to cure him of leprosy. Even though Veidt is predicably superb (even if his change of character after Savitri’s suicide is rather drastic), the heart of the film belongs to Mia May as Rowland’s fiancée, Irene. She undergoes the biggest emotional journey, demonstrates the greatest bravery and her scenes with Veidt are the highlight of the film, although the sets are of course, breath-taking.

The complexity of the sets would necessitate a lengthy pre-production, this in turn would lead to an irreconcilable fallout between writers and director. Lang had expected to direct the picture himself but during pre-production he was off helming Das wandernde Bild when producer Joe May took over himself, justifying it as the more experienced director. Given what the view now knows about Lang’s work, you suspect he’d have done a better job. The film’s opening sequences are rather flat and the ending is unforgivably rushed.

If not quite the beginning, The Indian Tomb is an early staging of western cinema’s portrayal of India as a magical yet primitive realm. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (US. Steven Spielberg, 1984) might justify itself as a historical family adventure that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But when considered alongside Gunga Din (US. George Stevens. 1939), The Man Who Would Be King (US/UK. John Huston, 1975), Octopussy (UK. John Glen, 1983), A Passage to India (US/UK. David Lean, 1984). And even The Jungle Book (US. Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967) a pattern begins to emerge. A pattern of imperialism.

“Historically, Europeans portrayed themselves as representing liberty, equality, progress, change, and dynamism in such accounts. In contrast, India was depicted as unhistorical, caught up with traditions—static, inert, or in a process of decline.”

The Indian Tomb may try and have its cake and eat it by framing this imperialism as a consequence of the (then contemporary) British Raj, but it still falls into a lot of the same traps. Both Veidt and Goetzke are in brownface, and several ‘Indian’ extras are black, as if any BAME person going would do as background artists. The film also demonstrates in no uncertain terms than Indians prefer Brits, whether as architects or lovers.

The release is packaged 1080p HD from a 2k restoration. The excellent score comes from a 2018 composition by Irena and Vojtech Havel. And as usual the video essay from David Cairns and Fiona Watson is worth the price of purchase alone, with a deep dive into production, themes and context.

The Indian Tomb is an amazing but flawed production and lives on as an artistic example of India’s use as a battleground for Western Imperialism.

SPECIAL EDITION TWO-DISC BLU-RAY CONTAINS: Both parts presented in 1080p HD, across two Blu-ray discs from 2K restorations undertaken by the Murnau foundation (FWMS) | Musical Score (2018) by Irena and Vojtěch Havel | Optional English subtitles | Brand New video essay by David Cairns & Fiona Watson | PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Philip Kemp

❉ The 100th Anniversary edition of THE INDIAN TOMB, fully restored in 2K, was released by Eureka Entertainment on 21 February 2022 as part of The Masters of Cinema Series. Available to order from Eureka Store:

Jon Dear is a writer and critic on TV and film. He has written for the BFI, Horrified Magazine, Curious British Television and Fortean Times. Jon is the co-host of the podcasts BERGCAST – The Nigel Kneale Podcast, and Due Signori in Giallo. Recent work includes a commentary for the long awaited Blu Ray/DVD release of Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale’s long-awaited adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Twitter: @AccordingtoJonD

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