Have you seen my Buddhas?

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I got the book Paul Wegener by Heide Schönemann out the Univeristy Library because it has lovely pictures, though the text is in German and this a closed book to me, even when it’s open.

Particularly striking were the stills from LEBENDE BUDDHAS (1925), aka LIVING BUDDHAS, co-written, directed and starring the GOLEM icon himself. Here’s one which reminds me of BLACK NARCISSUS ~

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I decided to see what I could find out about this orientalist super-epic — maybe even see the film itself. Unfortunately, the first thing I come across on the IMDb is a review by the late F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, usually a sure sign that a film has not survived the ravages of time. Sure enough, for once “Froggy” admits as much early on ~

‘Living Buddhas’ is officially ‘lost’ (who gets to make these decisions, anyway?), but about five and one-half minutes of footage survive in the possession of film collector Henry Nicholella, to whom my thanks for arranging their recent transmission on German television. The surviving fragments (on which this review is based) are non-consecutive, thus making a weird story seem even more confusing. Yet these few minutes contain some fascinating visual compositions which make me want to track down any more of this movie that might possibly exist.

A number of striking points in this open paragraph. Froggy actually gives plausible-sounding details about how he was able to see PART of this missing movie. And in fact, Henry Nicholella is a real person, author of Many Selves: The Horror and Fantasy Films of Paul Wegener. But I still have doubts: it’s possible Nicholella has discovered five and a half minutes of the lost film, and that he allowed German TV to screen them, and that Froggy somehow saw this transmission or a recording of it. But it’s also striking that all the images Froggy describes can be found in Schönemann’s book in the form of production stills, and these almost certainly also appear in Nicholella’s study.

Also of note here is the partial justification Froggy gives for his lifetime project of cramming the IMDb full of fake reviews for movies he can’t possibly have seen: “Who gets to make these decisions anyway?” He’s in rebellion against the experts (like Michael Gove). How dare anyone presume to know more than him? In a way, he’s right: Serge Bromberg’s rejection of the word “lost” is more nuanced — these films haven’t been found YET, but we shouldn’t presume their condition is permanent, since that cuts down on our chances of finding them.

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Froggy goes on ~

An expedition of European scientists to a Tibetan lamasery is led by Professor Campbel (who spells his name with only one ‘L’, possibly because he’s searching for the one-L lama). The rules for such movie expeditions require that he bring along his nubile young daughter; apparently lacking a daughter, he brings along his nubile young wife instead. He crosses paths with the High Lama (Paul Wegener) who is in the middle of conducting some hideous insidious invidious rituals which require the sacrifice of a nubile young female. Shall we say that complications ensue?

As depicted here (in the surviving footage and some intertitles), Wegener’s High Lama and his acolytes are endowed with genuine supernatural powers. (In the early twentieth century, there seemed to be a western vogue for attributing all sorts of supernatural abilities to Tibetan priests; thus we have James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizon’ and several American comic-book superheroes who got their powers in Tibet. There’s also Tintin’s levitating lama. And did someone mention ‘The Champions’?) In the footage seen here, I was impressed by a sequence in which one of the lamas (not Wegener) sends his soul out of his own body. While he meditates in a semi-lotus position, a double exposure of the same actor ascends through his head (in Buddhism, the most sacred portion of the body) and passes upwards into a levitating halo. The effect is reversed when the lama’s spirit returns.

Froggy was a pretty witty writer at times. My favourite of his bot mots was the title for a review of another lost Paul Wegener movie, THE GOLEM AND THE DANCING GIRL: “Her muddy buddy is no fuddy-duddy.” Sadly, the IMDb got wise to that one and deleted it. I kind of don’t want Froggy’s life’s work to get dustbinned.

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Elsewhere, we see a tight close-up of Wegener’s face as he bends forward, extending his broad forehead towards the camera. A separate image is superimposed on his forehead, showing the Campbel expedition while the High Lama spies on them via the psychic faculty of ‘remote vision’.

I don’t have a still of this but I suspect Nicholella does. The next one is represented ~

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I was extremely impressed by another shot of a steamship at sea, in an empty ocean with no visible land. Suddenly, from behind the horizon, a gigantic image of Wegener’s Lama rears up and surveys the ship. Genuinely eerie, this … and made all the more effective because of Wegener’s sardonic expression and facial structure. Wegener had very prominent cheekbones, which made him well-suited to playing ‘alien’ characters from exotic foreign climes. I’ve seen colour film footage of Wegener from the mid-1930s; he had very bright green eyes, which photographed very well in the nitrate film stock of the 1920s: the blue in Wegener’s pupils drops out, making his eyes seem yellow and cat-like even in monochrome stock. Wegener was a very stolid actor, of limited expression (making him just right to play the Golem) but with that face he didn’t need a wide range of emotions.

Also seen all too briefly in these fragments is the ethereal Asta Nielsen, one of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear in films. There are also some impressive exterior shots of crowd scenes in Chinoiserie sets. The German actors in Chinese make-up look more authentic than one might expect, not remotely like the usual ‘Mister Wu, how do you do?’ Sellotape stereotype.

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Froggy rounds things off with a confirmation of his high level of integrity as a reviewer ~

I very seldom give ratings to films which I’ve seen only in incomplete versions … but, based on the very tantalising glimpses which I’ve seen here, ‘Living Buddhas’ is a brilliant film which deserves to be resurrected in its entirety. I’ll cautiously rate it 8 out of 10.

Good thing he’s cautious. We might not trust him otherwise.

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4 Responses to “Have you seen my Buddhas?”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    Paul Wegener gave good facial structure. (Sounds like a Lotte Eisner version of “Vogue.”)

    I just felt the obligation, in connection with Froggie’s bon mot, to cite Carol Burnett in ONCE UPON A MATRESS admitting that she is a product of the swamps, saying “I’m your li’l mud bud.”

  2. And by coincidence I’ve just read Gerald Kersh’s short story “The Woman in the Mud.”

  3. David, You’re correct to be skeptical but I believe I have seen these fragments on youtube a year ago. Fragments from the original, color tinted version of THE GOLEM can also be accessed there. You may be interested to know that Heide’s book was reviewed over a decade ago in http://www.sensesofcinema.com in English giving a good synopsis of the material. My German is not good but I spent several wortwhile months reading it and it really should be translated into English.

  4. Boom!

    Old Froggy was a superb trickster — sometimes he even told the truth! The clips are well worth checking out. We even get the mental projection on Big Paul’s forehead.

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