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Indian Tomb, The

Kino // Unrated // April 5, 2022
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted June 16, 2022 | E-mail the Author
The Indian Tomb:

Orientalist Fantasy isn't a term bandied about much lately, but audiences the world over are still much interested in the lives of 'the other', as evidenced by the popularity of Hollywood movies in foreign markets, and of Asian genre cinema (Japanese horror, action etc.) among certain Americans. An early cinematic example of such a notion is this German silent movie epic from 1921. The Indian Tomb, from a script by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, is by turns breathless and hypnotic, a movie treat of rare power.

Von Harbou wrote the novel upon which The Indian Tomb was based, as well as the sci-fi novel 'Metropolis', both of which were worked into screenplays with her husband, and director, Lang. What a great partnership! Lang, however, did not direct The Indian Tomb, a task which was given over to Joe May, a prolific director and producer, and pioneer of German film, who eventually ended up managing a restaurant in Hollywood California after his time directing mostly B-pictures in Tinseltown.

The Indian Tomb is indeed a prime example of Orientalism, a term that gradually came to represent a patronizing Western attitude in imitation or depiction of Asian culture. Conrad Veidt, the German actor known for The Hands Of Orlac and Casablanca among many, many others, stars as the Maharajah of Eschnapur, a jealous and powerful man who wishes to build a fabulous monument to his wife, a monument more magnificent than the Taj Mahal. What better way to do this than to employ a British architect, whose works the Maharaja greatly admires. How he convinces the architect, Herbert Rowland (Olaf Fonss) to travel to India for the job, when Rowland would rather be getting married to his fiance Irene (Mia May) is a detail I'll leave out, other than to say it involves the special talents of the Yogi Ramagini, (Bernhard Goetzke).

Once things get rolling in India, they start slowly going sideways, as it becomes apparent that the Maharajah's intent towards his willful wife is less to honor her, and more to teach her a very serious lesson. Meanwhile, Rowland's fiance demonstrates willfulness of her own; she's forbidden by the Maharajah from contacting Rowland, yet can't bear the thought of being without him. Much breathless yet extremely measured action, mostly emotional, ensues over the course of this presentation, delivered more or less as two movies, but consisting of about four hours-worth of entertainment.

Much is logically made of this movie's relationship to German attitudes towards Colonialism and Asian culture - the movie was in fact made three times: this version, one in 1938, and one in 1959 (directed by Lang). There is good writing out there on the subject, but for the casual fan (if there are casual fans of four hour long silent movies) the focus on emotional turmoil, relatively nascent manners of affecting cinematic spectacle, and more plebeian aspects of story and character arcs, are enough to make this a fascinating and recommended movie treat.

As mentioned, there is action of a sort, slowly-paced though it is. The Yogi supplies fantastical elements, there is a chase scene or two in the second half of the movie, and scenes of peril derived from tigers, lepers and even shootouts. Modern audiences of course won't be moved a notch in comparison to today's lightning-fast, high stakes offerings, but enough is done to make viewers feel some connection to characters in peril, especially in a scene with menacing lepers that brings to mind Tod Browning's later Freaks, that one will come away from viewing with a fine sense of having been entertained. And certainly elements of larger-than-life movie-going sights are present: massive sets, obsequious servants called upon to use their own bodies as stair-steps, caravans of elephants and more, are meant to beguile the viewer, and they are still effective. The modern addition of a very hypnotic, evocative (if not slightly repetitive) 2018 score by The Havels (Vojtech and Irena Havlovi) further accentuates the air of foreign mystery and mysticism conveyed by the movie.

But as much as The Indian Tomb represents spectacle, it also delivers - again, slowly and with much melodrama - real character arcs, and effective performances even in the silent milieu. Veidt in particular dominates the show, going from solicitous to menacing to anguished and pathetic with convincing power. Fonss has less to do, oddly, as one of the pivotal elements, but turns into something of an action hero by the end, while May demonstrates grit and independence nicely as she progresses from a lovesick and concerned onlooker to woman determined to help anyone she can, while saving herself and her fiance. Goetzke's ominous Yogi gets a ton of mileage out of moving slowly and glaring grimly. He has a fantastic look for the film.

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release of The Indian Tomb represents a lot of things. As a four-hour silent movie, it's probably only for the hardcore contingent of movie buffs. But as a representation of early German cinema, replete with now recognized as problematic elements of Orientalist fantasy, (including blackface) and grand, slow-moving spectacle, it's definitely something to be seen. You film scholars and historians will be able to dig in more deeply, but for even a more casual viewer such as myself, The Indian Tomb is moving, engaging, and fascinating. Recommended.


The DVD

Video:
The Indian Tomb arrives in a 1080p high definition presentation in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The 2k transfer is based off of a 2016 restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation. The film features reconstructed intertitles and color tints from an original Czech print of the film. Print damage in the form of scratches and dirt mostly are certainly present and noticeable, but not distracting, and are of a much lesser degree than many other ancient, restored silent films. Fine details are nice, and overall The Indian Tomb looks quite good.


Sound:
The Havels' 2018 score sounds great and both modern yet ancient. It's presented in a PCM audio track with good dynamic range and no distortion or other audio problems.


Extras:
The release's sole extra is a 46-minute Visual Essay: Turbans Over Woltersdorf, which outline's the movie's production, as well as the lives and careers of its principals. It's an entertaining and helpful document to deepen a viewer's understanding of the movie.


Final Thoughts:
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release of The Indian Tomb represents a lot of things. As a four-hour silent movie, it's probably only for the hardcore contingent of movie buffs. But as a representation of early German cinema, replete with now recognized as problematic elements of Orientalist fantasy, (including blackface) and grand, slow-moving spectacle, it's definitely something to be seen. You film scholars and historians will be able to dig in more deeply, but for even a more casual viewer such as myself, The Indian Tomb is moving, engaging, and fascinating. Recommended.

www.kurtdahlke.com

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