A rich fellow goes to Egypt for some sightseeing and ends up with a bride, a tomb curse broken and a deranged stalker. How was your last vacation? Pola Negri and Emil Jannings play some Svengali-meets-Dracula by way of an Egyptian tomb.
“Did I ask you to hire this crazy Pole?”
In 1918, Ernst Lubitch was a popular actor and director of comedies but, like so many of his comical brethren, he had larger ambitions. Germany and the United States may have been at war but they agreed on one thing: exotic melodramas were good box office.
Lubitsch had been working with Ossi Oswalda, an energetic blonde who is sometimes described as the German Mary Pickford but who was actually the German Ossi Oswalda. Bold, tomboyish and game for anything, Ossi was great for comedy but exotic melodrama was not exactly in her wheelhouse at this point in her career.
As the leading lady of The Eyes of the Mummy (Die Augen der Mumie Ma), Lubitsch hired a young Polish actress who had been splitting her time between her native film industry and Germany the previous year. Negri’s experience as a dancer and her smoldering beauty made her an ideal fit for a cast that included Lubitsch regulars Harry Liedtke and Emil Jannings.
Albert Wendland (Liedtke) is a painter hoping to gain inspiration in Egypt. While wandering in the desert, he spots a young woman (Negri) who flees when he approaches. Back at his hotel, he learns that the burial chamber of Queen Ma is cursed and sightseers have returned insane, raving about living eyes.
Wendland decides to go anyway. He sees the living eyes but is attacked by Radu (Jannings). Wendland overpowers him and opens the inner tomb, where he discovers that the eyes actually belong to a living woman named Ma, the same woman he spotted in the desert. She has been kidnapped and hypnotized by Radu but would very much like to leave. The pair return to Europe together. Meanwhile, Radu has convinced some twit of a tourist to take him to Europe as well so he can search for Ma.
Ma is a sensation with high society and becomes a star of the stage with her shimmy-shimmy shakes but she feels she is being stalked by Radu, probably because she is being stalked by Radu. She and Wendland are married by this time but he doesn’t seem to comprehend the danger that his wife feels.
Will Ma escape Radu? Will Wendland get a clue? Find out in The Eyes of the Mummy.
The anecdote most commonly shared about this film is found just about everywhere, including in Pola Negri’s memoirs (which are as unreliable as Lillian Gish’s). During the film’s climax, she was to take a few steps down a short flight of stairs and then collapse at the bottom. Instead, she decided to fall down the whole flight in one go, a risky stunt under the best of circumstances. Lubitsch told her not to attempt it because he quipped that he “might need her for retakes.”
While shooting the scene with Jannings, Negri states that she tripped on her long skirt and fell backwards. Lubitsch yelled at Jannings for letting her fall and Jannings retorted that he never asked Lubitsch to “hire this crazy Pole.”
Due to the nature of the stunt, retakes would have been unlikely. Here is the scene as it appears in the finished picture (I have slowed it down in order to better see the detail):
I see no tripping, Negri’s feet hardly move during the shot. What it looks like to me (and keep in mind, we have only one angle) is that Negri went more completely limp than Jannings expected and he lost his grip on her. You can see him trying to catch hold as she slips away. That being said, Negri clearly falls backwards down the flight of stairs without the use of a stunt double, taking most of the impact from the fall on her shoulder. The fall looks unexpected to me, so both Negri and Jannings deserve credit for not breaking character. Also, owch!
This film is sometimes described as Svengali meets She but I don’t really agree. In my opinion, this film has a lot in common with Bram Stoker’s Dracula: the supernatural stalking, the mysterious ailment, the victim’s loved ones standing by while her health declines. But, frankly, I think we’re giving the story too much credit as it seems to be a patchwork quilt and a poorly designed one at that.
(There will be spoilers from this point on because much of what I will be discussing covers the structure of the film as a whole, including the ending.)
This film’s biggest flaw is that while many scenes work individually, they never coalesce into a whole. The Pygmalion-esque scenes of Ma learning how to be a European lady are cute. The Dracula-like scenes of Radu stalking her are scary. The dance scenes are… I dunno, sexy? Anyway, these all work on their own terms but never as an overall story.
The film is basically one reel of plot in a feature-length box and the stretchmarks show. This would have likely worked fine as one of those Nickelodeon era vignette pictures: dude finds a mummy, discovers a woman, takes her home, scary guy follows, kills her, curtain. But dragged on for an hour? Oh dear. And there are no subplots, just the stalking. Both Hanns Kräly and Emil Rameau had done better and would do better but not today.
Jannings probably has the most consistent character in the picture. He’s the deranged stalker and it works as long as you don’t examine his motives too closely. (His living mummy plan is the very essence of Rube Goldberg when a simple waylaying in the desert would work just as well.) All Jannings has to do is act all intense and menacing, which basically IS Jannings.
Harry Liedtke and Pola Negri, however, are forced to turn on a dime and go from tragedy to romance to rom-com to tragedy to society picture to horror film to tragedy. The whiplash is bad enough for the viewer, let alone the performers. Liedtke exceled at light comedic fare and looks like he was basically born with a monocle in his eye and a glass of champagne in his hand. He does fine with the romance and humor but everything else seems to throw him off his game.
Negri is a more versatile performer and is able to roll with the punches better than Liedtke but, like the rest of the film, the shifts in her character are jarring. Also, if you’re being stalked by a homicidal hypnotist, why the heck would you agree to be left home alone? All that money and they can’t even afford some bodyguards? Sheesh!
That being said, the Negri charisma is undeniable, as is her way of commanding the attention of the audience whenever she appears on the screen. A lesser actress would have melted away under these circumstances but Negri was never the fading type and any success this film enjoys is largely due to her.
Lubitsch, Negri and Jannings would all recover and move onto greater success but it does seem like a waste to have all this talent on hand and end up with such a middling result. Lubitsch’s earlier comedies like I Don’t Want to Be a Man and The Merry Jail were chaotic and disorganized but the talented comedians in the cast were able to turn this into an advantage, creating anarchic humor. Lubitsch had yet to learn that the same trick would not work in a melodrama.
Even if the film was not a complete success, it did accomplish one thing: it fired up Lubitsch’s ambitions even further. He later wrote that after making this film, he was fired up to direct and lost his desire to act. Inspired by Pola Negri’s artistic approach to film, he decided to continue down a path to more magnificent films. (With comedy detours, of course, and an eventual melding of comedy and ambition that became known as the Lubitsch Touch.)
The Eyes of the Mummy works in individual scenes and fans of Negri, Jannings or Lubitsch will all want to see it but it definitely deserves its reputation as a lesser film. A better script might have saved the day but it is what it is. For fans only.
Where can I see it?
The Eyes of the Mummy has been released by various public domain outlets. If you can get hold of it, the version included in the out-of-print Pola Negri: The Iconic Collection has an energetic piano score by Rick DeJonge that elevates the film considerably.
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