Eyes of the Mummy (Die Augen der Mumie Ma) 1918

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
"The Eyes are alive! The Eyes are alive!"
A traveller to Egypt rescues a beautiful girl from the evil influence of her captor, until fate decrees that he follow the lovers to Europe and exact his revenge. A tragic melodrama from the director later famed for his sophisticated Hollywood comedies.

Albert Wendland is a painter travelling in Egypt, intrigued by stories he overhears about the haunted tomb of Queen Ma. The only man he meets who has seen the tomb for himself has been driven insane; all he can tell Wendland of his experience is, “The eyes are alive!”

Undeterred, Wendland makes the journey into the desert. At the entrance to the tomb, he finds an Arab named Radu, who offers to be his guide. Wendland is led inside to where Ma’s casket rests, and is startled when the ancient Queen’s eyes seem to come to life. When Wendland tries to get a closer look, Radu protests violently; the two men fight and Radu is brought down by a pistol shot. Wendland discovers that the casket is a doorway to a hidden chamber, and that the eyes he had seen belong to a beautiful Egyptian girl.

The girl, Ma, explains that Radu has kept her as his slave for several years. Wendland pledges to take her home with him and they abandon the wounded Radu on the tomb’s dusty floor. Radu stumbles into the desert, where he is rescued by Wendland's countryman Prince Hohenfels and his expedition. Radu promises servitude to the Prince in return for saving his life; in secret, he prays to his gods for vengeance on Ma and her lover.

Wendland introduces Ma to German society, where she becomes a celebrated dancer. Prince Hohenfels, returned from Egypt, comes to the theatre one night to see her perform. He is accompanied by Radu, who immediately recognises Ma; she senses Radu's hypnotic gaze, and collapses on stage.

Radu (Emil Jannings) menaces a
helpless Ma (Pola Negri)
Ma is taken ill. She learns that Wendland has sold his portrait of her to the Prince, and begs Wendland to ask him to return it, knowing that Radu is not far away. But Radu has already found the painting and angrily driven a knife into its heart. Wendland’s signature is the final clue that will lead Radu to Ma, and his revenge…  

Viewers coming to Eyes of the Mummy expecting a supernatural tale of love across the centuries in the same mould (no pun intended) as the 1932 Karloff film will be sorely disappointed. It barely even qualifies as a horror film, instead taking its template from melodramas like the often-filmed Trilby (as did Phantom of the Opera, for that matter), that of an innocent girl rescued from the clutches of a powerful villain, in this case a wild-eyed Emil Jannings in Arab drag.

Some questions arise about the ambiguity of the Egyptian scenes - the name 'Ma' for instance. Is it just coincidence that the girl has the same name as the supposedly ancient Queen? And what exactly is the extent of Radu's influence, when we know Ma is never physically held captive? These avenues are never explored, and in the end it's easier to imagine Radu merely as a sleazy confidence trickster, and the whole saga as a straightforward romance with tragic undertones.

The film was intended as a showcase for the talents of dark-eyed beauty Pola Negri. Director Lubitsch met Negri in 1917 while she was working for Saturn films in Berlin. By then, the woman born Barbara Appolonia Chalupek in 1897 was already an accomplished stage actress and ballerina, and had appeared in several films in her native Warsaw. Convinced of her star quality, Lubitsch persuaded PAGU-Film (then part of state-owned UFA) to devise a large-scale drama with Negri in the lead role.

Of course, it's possible this was just Lubitsch's excuse to expand his repertoire beyond the comedies he was best known for even then. What he ultimately bought to this quasi-horror subject (in which, by the way, there is no actual mummy) was a winning way with his characters, later termed 'the Lubitsch Touch' by his Hollywood contemporaries. Ma's awkward integration into European society, for example, is explored with just as much care as the more conventionally dramatic scenes. But when the action takes over, as in the final confrontation between Radu and Ma, some deftly-handled editing draws the viewer in.

 Pola Negri publicity photo
Lubitsch and Negri were something of a mutual appreciation society, Lubitsch calling Negri "one of the most vital persons I have ever known", and Negri in turn praising "...the agility with which he expressed his often brilliant thoughts". They made several more films together in Berlin before the lure of Hollywood proved too strong for them both. Negri's exotic good looks brought her stardom in a string of 'femme fatale' roles for Paramount, teaming up with Lubitsch one last time for Forbidden Paradise in 1924. Lubitsch himself enjoyed great acclaim with musicals and comedies - The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, To Be Or Not To Be and many more.

Emil Jannings, of course, went on to feature in a brace of German expressionist classics: Paul Leni's Waxworks and F.W. Murnau's Faust. Though many of his contemporaries later fled Germany, Jannings continued to work under the Nazi regime, as did his co-star Harry Liedtke. Lieddtke, Ma's celluloid saviour, was killed in his home in 1945 while defending a young lady from Russian soldiers.

Eyes of the Mummy got some attention on it's release in October 1918, but political upheavals in Germany and the arrival of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a year later meant its time in the public eye was short. When given a belated release in the U.S. in 1922, Variety dismissed it as "another of those labored dime novel dramatic stories from the UFA plant", but at least found the time to praise Pola Negri's dancing skills.

End Credits:
Pola Negri (Ma), Harry Leidtke (Albert Wendland), Emil Jannings (Radu), Max Laurence (Prince Hohenfels).
Screenplay: Hans Kraly, Emil Rameau, Cinematography: Alfred Hansen, Art Direction: Kurt Richter.
PAGU-Film (UFA), Germany
Running Time 57 mins

Eyes of the Mummy (Grapevine Video)

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