The Indian Tomb

Mia May and Conrad Veidt in The Indian Tomb.
(© 2000 Water Bearer Films, Inc. All rights reserved.)

D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Among the great filmmakers of the German silent era, Joe May ranks near the top of the list. But today the mention of his name brings shrugs from all but the most knowledgeable film lovers. That's disappointing for May created several astonishing films that deserve wider recognition -- such as The Indian Tomb, which is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment and Water Bearer Films. This three-and-a-half-hour-long epic is one of the all-time great adventure stories.

Based on a book by Thea von Harbou and with a screenplay co-written by Harbou and Fritz Lang (her then husband), The Indian Tomb is an action-packed thriller that takes us from British drawing rooms to Indian temples. Along the way, you'll encounter mystical yogis, hungry crocodiles, hissing cobras, majestic tombs, and man-eating tigers. The Indian Tomb is a big two-part movie with a total running time (212 minutes) comparable to an American serial. However, while American serials frequently degenerate into fist fights and repetitive action, The Indian Tomb is filled with unexpected developments.

Erna Morena and Conrad Veidt in Joe May's The Indian Tomb.
[click photo for larger version]

The Danish matinee idol Olaf Fønss (who starred in the German series Homonculus) stars as an architect named Herbert Rowland who dreams of building a magnificent structure such as the Taj Mahal. He's quite sure the Taj Mahal would have been even better if he'd been its architect. He gets his wish when a mysterious yogi (Bernhard Goetzke) arrives at this door, bidding him to come to India and design a monumental temple. Rowland momentarily balks -- for one of the conditions is he must drop everything and leave immediately without telling anyone where he's going. He's even forbidden from telling his fiancée Irene (Mia May). But soon his desire to create the structure of his greatest dreams overcomes his wariness and he agrees to the terms as set forth by the yogi.

Before Rowland leaves for India, he surreptitiously writes a note for his fiancée. But the yogi is all-seeing and therefore his hand reaches out across many miles to pluck the note off Rowland's desk. This is one of the movie's best sequences: as Irene races to Rowland's mansion to look for clues of his sudden disappearance, we see the ghost-life image of the yogi's hand descend upon the desk. However, Irene is no pushover. In fact her insistence on discovering Rowland's whereabouts pushes the drama forward as she doggedly pursues clues and follows the trail to India.

Mia May in Joe May's The Indian Tomb.
[click photo for larger version]

Maharajah Ayan (Conrad Veidt) has requested Rowland for the purpose of building a massive temple for entombing his unfaithful wife. Princess Savitri (Erna Morena) fell in love with a dashing British officer (Paul Richter, who starred as Siegfried in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen) and now the Maharajah holds the princess captive, awaiting the construction of her tomb, while also plotting the officer's death.

Among the movies many memorable sequences, you'll see Irene menaced by a crowd of lepers, the resurrection of a buried yogi, a journey through a pit full of tigers, a treacherous climb across a chasm on a rickety bridge, and a midnight stumble by Irene and Rowland through a torture chamber. This movie is packed with amazing sequences and stunning sets.

May's other great films include Homecoming (1928), the story of a love triangle told against the backdrop of war, and Asphalt (1930), a somber story told as a street drama. With the arrival of Nazism, however, May left Germany, first moving to France and later to America. May continued making films, but all his work outside of Germany is now considered routine and of little interest except to May historians. The Indian Tomb, though, is prime May and this new release from Image Entertainment and Water Bearer Films is an excellent opportunity for film lovers to become acquainted with one of the more neglected names in German cinema.

David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates oversaw the mastering of this DVD from a tinted and toned nitrate print. The video transfer features good detail and minimal signs of wear.

The Indian Tomb is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment and Water Bearer Films. Suggested retail price: $29.99 each. For additional information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site and the Water Bearer Films Web site.