The Sunday Intertitle: Death of a Princess

Thanks to regular Shadowplayer Guy Budziak for supplying me with a copy of Joe May’s THE INDIAN TOMB.

Of course, watching it now means trying to fit it into the oeuvre of screenwriters Fritz Lang & Thea Von Harbou, whose reputation has long superseded May’s. It feels very Langian, and not only because of the architect hero (Lang studied for that profession, a training which emerges not just in METROPOLIS and SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, but in all those titles — HOUSE BY THE RIVER, SCARLET STREET, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW). What connects it to later works like METROPOLIS is the way it’s riven with factions, including but not limited to heroes and villains. DIE NIBELUNGEN is probably the best example of this “beyond good and evil” approach, where sympathy for one group of characters over another isn’t as big a deal as it generally is in mainstream movie narratives. (In NIBELUNGEN, that’s putting it very mildly indeed.) This sense is even stronger in Lang’s much later remake of THE INDIAN TOMB, which dispenses with the more overt supernatural elements (and I wonder why?).

Nevertheless, despite being impressed by the mighty sets and the scope of the sprawling story, I was somewhat tickled by the above intertitle, spoken to console the architect who dreams of building his own Taj Mahal — within seconds, he will learn that an Indian princess has indeed expired, and guess who they want to erect her tomb?

24 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Death of a Princess”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Thea von Harbou was very interested in the Indian occult, I found out through a local contact. She’s the grandaughter of an Indian journalist who worked for a Berlin newspaper who befriended the Langs and had a relationship with Thea after Fritz flew the coop. Like many Germans of that time she admired India for its aesthetics, chiefly for its caste system.

    Regarding DIE NIBELUNGEN, it’s the only the second part which becomes interesting – KRIEMHILDE’S RACHE. And the stark difference between the two parts is that the first is redolent of fantasy and fantastic elelements. The second is a full-throttle Jacobean revenge bloodcurdler, Margarete Schon’s Kriemhild being one of the most complexly realized characters in silent cinema. It aims to achieve Cyril Tourneur’s maxim in his ”The Revenger’s Tragedy” – “When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good!”

    Lang’s INDIAN EPIC is a major cult film among cinephiles but aside from some moments I can never get into it. I much prefer MOONFLEET.

  2. That you “can’t get into it” Arthur only goes to show you’d never make it as a MacMahonist. I think it’s Lang’s Absolute Masterpiece. Lang started out wanting a career as an architect you know. Der Tiger von Escnapur / Das Insiche Grabmal gave him leave to build castles in the air of cinema.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    The scene in the second film, in the cave with the spider, is pretty striking in that regard.

    As for not making as a MacMahonist, well I like PARTY GIRL still. That ought to count or is lack of enthusiasm for these films sufficient for irrevocable banishment?

  4. The real acid test for becoming a MacMahonista proceeds from such delights as Cottafavi Hercules Conquers Atlantis and Don Weis’ The Adventures of Haji Baba

    Meanwhile, in today’s NYT Manohla discusses Lang’s Ameircna films

  5. More on Lang here soon.

    The image of Von Harbou in her later years, living in a garret with a pic of Gandhi on one wall and Hitler on the other, creates a vivid plan of her mind. Under other circumstances, Lang might have enjoyed such a felicitous room.

  6. Arthur S. Says:

    A very lukewarm article I guess. Lang’s American films are truly striking and strange. ”You only live once, The Big Heat, While the City Sleeps” are truly masterpieces as I would argue is HANGMEN ALSO DIE!.

    I was reading Bill Krohn’s long essay in the Cinema and Shoah anthology which offers a revisionist perspective of Hollywood films responsiveness to the persecution of Jews in Europe. Reading the piece on Lang where she notes that HANGMEN ALSO DIE could have mentioned the Jewish persecution first among Hollywood films struck me as a drawback in my view. The film is great and shamelessly ripped off and diluted by Tarantino in his movie, smart-ass Gestapo sleuth and all.

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    In McGilligan’s spurious biography of Lang, there’s a terrific moment where Lang on hearing that Von Harbou was reduced to working as a road digger in post-war Germany started laughing uncontrollably. Shades of James Mason in 5 FINGERS.

  8. I read with interest your appreciation of Nico yesterday, David E, and discovered this morning that Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott made mention of it in his latest post as well.

    I was initially drawn to May’s film because of Conrad Veidt’s involvement, but found Bernhard Goetzke’s yogi to be just as memorable, his resurrection in the beginning was totally unexpected, and a pleasant surprise (prefiguring Karloff’s resurrection in Freund’s THE MUMMY by ten years). Perhaps the strangest and most comical scene in the film takes place in the den of lepers beneath the palace itself. The architect discovers it while searching for his wife, and as he recoils he steps backward, only to bump his heel against… a living head, a leper that appears to be buried from the neck down in the soil. And a very animated head at that. WHY there’s a leper’s head jutting up from the ground is never explained, it just IS.

  9. And a brilliant wordsmith, I definitely admire his gifts in that department, not to mention his wicked and witty sense of humor.

  10. Lang’s last American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was reviewed by Jacques Rivette in CdC in an article entitled “The Hand.” Peerlesly weird Rivette equips it with a footnote that’s longer than the piece itself

  11. Among the American Lang’s I adore While the City Sleeps (1956) with its great cast, tight script (Casey Robinson) and exceptionally sharp direction of both. A kind of quasi-remake of M it contextualizes the crimes of the “lipstick killer” (Drew Barrymore’s father) neither in relation to the police nor criminal gangs but rather a power struggle within a media empire. Old man “Kyne” has died and it an open question as to who will succeed him. Solving the “lipstick killer” case will decide the matter. That the “Kyne” company manages both a newspaper and a television station looks forward to today’s mega-media quite strikingly. And the delightfully cynical take the film has on pressroom one-upsmanship isn’t all that far from The Social Network

  12. In addition to the Debra Paget’s snake charmer scene, the scene where the subterranean leper city is discovered is very memorable also, but I think reads differently after WWII. I’ve never seen the first version.

  13. I love that Rivette review. I may have to read it another ten times before I understand it, but I loved it on first sight.

    As to the leper’s head, a similar image is portrayed in Jacques Tourneur’s The Romance of Radium, where an injured African native is restored by burial up to the neck in radioactive soil. Maybe Lang & co were inspired by such a story. It’s certainly a wild moment.

    Been too long since I enjoyed While the City Sleeps, which is decorated with a wild cast of memorable players.

    That line Dargis quotes approvingly, “Early nothing,” could be the key to a whole piece on the production design of Lang’s US films.

  14. You can find a translation of “The Hand” Here.

  15. David Boxwell Says:

    May’s ASPHALT (29) is worth a look and I like the expressionist touches he brought to CONFESSION (37), made at Warner Bros.

    He’s been overshadowed by Lang and Murnau.

  16. Christopher Says:

    oh for the days when youth ,wild imagination,before drugs ,overwork,alcohol and burnout took their could resurrect everything in film as eing done before 1922

  17. May’s Hollywood career was much shorter than Lang’s and didn’t allow him to continue the style or themes of his German work. I mean, his Invisible Man/Woman stuff is enjoyable, but it’s hardly The House by the River.

  18. thanks for the Rivette link.

  19. You’re welcome.

    Confession is truly impressive. Sad that he went from that height straight to the B sub-basement.

  20. Christopher Says:

    Lupita Tovar seems to talk a great deal about Joe May in the 2009 documentary Cinema Exiles:From Hitler to Hollywood…I’m only familiar with ihs Universal films myself.

  21. Randy Byers Says:

    May remade Paul Leni’s THE LAST WARNING as THE HOUSE OF FEAR in 1939, and I’ve always been curious about that, despite the presence of El Brendel. Also THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES the next year with Vincent Price.

    ASPHALT is terrific and changed my impression of Gustav Fröhlich, whom I’d only seen in METROPOLIS before. But it’s really Betty Amann’s movie

  22. Just realised I have an unwatched copy of Confession, which I must view. And I’m keen to look at the later cheaper ones also. Dupont seemed to really lose his control and personality later (with stuff like The Neanderthal Man) but I’m curious to find out what, if anything, May preserved. Lang is fascinating because although he evolves, he was never diluted.

  23. Likable to me at least: Mia May as The Indian Tomb’s heroine. Portly even by the generous standards of the day, and as middle-aged as the fiance played by Olaf Funnyvowel, she’s got a lot more gumption than he does. Not only does she take off for India on her own to rescue him, she sees his penchant for bumping into lepers and raises him a meander into a tiger pit.

    Mia May had been enough of a star that Joe May took her stage name when they married, but I believe she also shared production duties with him. Even when faced with Conrad Veidt as a golden androgynous man-god, she seems to have her mind on timely elephant delivery and other practical matters.

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