The Indian Tomb | The ambitious 1921 German silent epic on Blu-ray

One of the grandest, most expensive films of the German silent era, The Indian Tomb – producer/director Joe May’s 1921 two-part adaptation of Thea von Harbou’s 1918 novel Das indische Grabmal – is an exotic mystical epic and an artistic wonder. It’s now out on Blu-ray in a 2k restoration print from Eureka Entertainment as part of The Masters of Cinema Series.

A menacing Maharajah, marauding tigers and a mystical yogi all come to play in this captivating adventure. Conrad Veidt takes centre stage as Ayan, the dominating Maharajah of Bengal, who commissions architect Herbert Rowland (Olaf Fønss) to build a mausoleum for the great love of his life, the princess Savitri (Erna Morena).

But when Rowland accepts, he soon discovers the prince is a cruel tyrant whose real agenda is to entomb his wife over her affair with a British officer, Mac Allen (Paul Richter). Infected with leprosy and unable to escape the palace, Rowland’s only hope lies with his concerned fiancé Irene (Mia May), who sets out to save him – and the princess.

The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal) should have been directed by Fritz Lang, who had co-written the screenplay with Harbou and had hoped to helm the project. Producer May, however, took charge citing Lang as inexperienced, which infuriated Lang and ended their working relationship. While this heady fusion of Weimar cinema and pulp serial was a success in Germany, it didn’t take off elsewhere and reviews were mixed. It’s only recently that May’s film has been reappraised.

Lang, however, did end up making his version, in 1959 (you can read about it here), and its success led to him returning to his most memorable cinematic creation (the master criminal Dr Mabuse) in what became his cinematic swansong (my review can be found here). May, meanwhile, emigrated to America in 1933 where he ended up specialising in mainly B-features for Universal (including 1940s The Invisible Man Returns and The House of the Seven Gables, both starring Vincent Price).

May’s take on Harbou’s tale is indeed impressive, mainly for its opulent sets (although the titular tomb isn’t as grand as you’d expect – it reminded me of a pimped-up Tardis) and some haunting imagery (especially the leper colony, the crypt of yogis buried alive, the tiger attack and Veidt decked out in an elaborate ritual costume worthy of Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World), but it loses points with the action sequences, where May’s camera remains static.

Regardless, it’s Veidt that we’ve all come to see. Resplendent in a turban, white suit and jodhpurs, he’s in fine, chilling form and he certainly acts up a storm in the second part when Savitri finally escapes the palace.

Giving Veidt a run in the sinister stakes, however, is Bernhard Goetzke, as the icy and impassive yogi Ramigani (Ayan’s Rasputin-styled advisor who seems to possess genuine supernatural powers). He’s so compelling. No wonder Lang cast him as Death in Der müde Tod the same year. Playing the unfortunate Mac Allan is Paul Richter. He would go on to play another legendary character, Siegfried, in Lang’s Die Nibelungen.

The two-parter may run around 3hours 40minutes in total, but it passes in no time thanks to the imagery and stylised performances. The ambient, avant-garde is quite good at first. But comprising of what seems to be just two thematic structures played on a loop it becomes rather repetitive. The video essay is very informative, especially about the creative talents involved in the production. But damn it, I now have to see Joe (and Mia) May’s eight-part 1919 serial, The Mistress of the World.

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
• 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
• Video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson
• Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Philip Kemp

About Peter Fuller

Peter Fuller is an award-winning print, radio and television journalist and producer, with over 30 years experience covering film and television, with a special interest in world cinema and popular culture. He is a leading expert on the life and career of Vincent Price and actively promotes the actor's legacy through publications, websites and special events.

Posted on March 1, 2022, in Silent and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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