The latest in a long line of star-studded adaptations of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, Death on the Nile sinks without trace under the weight of Kenneth Branagh’s all-consuming ego. Failing to understand that one of the pleasures of such films is the attention given to the impressive cast, he instead gives his focus entirely to his own performance as Poirot, engaging in mythmaking and heroics at the expense of everybody else. In its limited capacity, the focus on Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express worked for Mike – here, there’s no defending it.
Watching The Eyes of the Mummy in the version distributed by Alpha Entertainment is itself a work of archeology. Each frame is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of the original positive. We can see the contours, the outline, what the image might have been like. But we don’t know for sure. Clothes, décor, texture—all so important to Lubitsch’s work and the pleasures audiences get from it – are here barely discernible. The quality of the image requires an operation of decipherment at various levels, from the general — what were the images and sounds like originally and what might they have meant to audiences at the time? — to the particular: what does that inter-title so faded as to be unintelligible actually say?
According to Sabine Hake in Passions and Deceiptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, ‘The Eyes of the Mummy announces Lubitsch’s decision in its promotional campaign: “He (Lubitsch) succeeds in persuading his boss and discoverer, Paul Davidson of Union Film, that he must now realise his artistic dreams in the creation of great film drama . Davidson decides to risk a lot of money…”The rest, as the credits try to suggest, is history. (p.38)’
The film is Orientalist tosh that features all the elements, historical and fictional, archeological digs in Egypt had made fashionable: pyramids, sand dunes, high priests, exotic dances, otherworldly trances, sexual enslavement. These would become even more popular with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923. Thus the film is riding a wave of Orientalism in Western Culture, a wide-ranging one encompassing the Russian Costumes popularised by Dhiagelev and the Ballets Russes, but also Chinese porcelain, Turkish rugs and the Japanese Screens so adored by Coco Chanel. Its Egyptian variant would manifest itself throughout popular culture in the twenties and beyond via Sheiks, sand dunes, glittery sequins, hair that was bobbed and fringed, mummies and more.
The world of The Eyes of the Mummy is not too far removed from that of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, ever with us in endless adaptations, as well as the relatively recent Stephen Sommers franchise of Mummy films (1999-2008), which in itself encompasses a broad and unapologetic Orientalism. All find an origin in the fashion for Egyptology and all are in evidence here. We could say that Lubitsch was on the avant-garde of a fashion that is still with us, a hegemonic discourse that still places and displaces, fetishizes, fixes, and inevitably puts into play dynamics of empire and subjugation.
The plot is simple to the point of simplistic but also sexy and sensational: Albert Wendland (Harry Liedtke), a young painter, goes on a sojourn to Egypt and sees a beautiful girl gathering water by a well. The next day at the Palace Hotel, Prince Hohenfels (Max Laurence) plans to go on an outing to see the forbidden burial chamber but is advised that anyone who has visited has come upon terrible misfortune. Albert overhears and asks one of the victims what happened. ‘The eyes are a live’ screams the victim in delirium.
When Albert does eventually venture there, Radu (Emil Jannings) the keeper of the tomb takes him to the see the ‘Eyes of the Mummy’ and he, thinking that there’s something familiar and fishy, goes into the antechamber to see what’s behind. Radu tries to stop him, they fight, and Albert accidentally shoots Ragu. When he finally gets to the antechamber, he finds Ma (Pola Negri) who turns out be the reason the eyes of the Mummy were alive: they’re hers.
Ma tells Albert of her sad fate: years ago she’d been gathering water by a well when Radu kidnapped her, made her the eyes of the Mummy and a slave to his ‘every’ wish. Albert promises to free her and does. He takes her home to Europe, paints her portrait and introduces her to all his friends. Bernardhi, a famous showbiz impresario, is impressed by her dancing at a party, puts her on the stage and she becomes a big star. Unfortunately for her, Radu lives. He was rescued by Prince Hohenfels and is now also in Europe. When he finds her, his mere glance is enough to once more put her under his spell. When she resists, he kills her, kisses her and kills himself. It’s almost as much trashy fun to recount as it is to watch.
The film is worth seeing, even in this degraded print, for further proof of how great Lubitsch is with crowds, for the expressive movement of people within space rendered interesting, new and fresh through inventive compositions. The market scenes, embroidered with little vignettes such as the boys stealing, the magicians doing their act and merchants hawking their wares, demonstrate a vivid and textured rendering of atmosphere. We begin to see how Lubitsch creates memorable compositions that are also places for movement and action such as the initial introduction of the sand dunes; and also how these are edited so that time, setting and action all find a rhythm, one which maximizes the spectacular elements of what we’ve been shown; see for example the shot of Prince Hohenfels returning from his outing, the horses on top of the sand dunes and how we continue seeing the movement of the caravan of people until the very last horse goes out of the frame, evoking a sense of exotic, contemplative and magnificent spectacle.
The scenes at the Art Gallery, the Alhambra Theatre, and the Hotel all function as set-pieces where Lubitsch sets out to dazzle with crowds of people, costumes, dances or even acrobats. This is a film that adores that which can add a shine or or a shiver and this includes playing with film form; see for example, the super-imposition of images to convey the link between Radu and Ma’s minds but also to render Radu’s presence immaterial, otherworldly and spectral. This of course would become a standard way of showing ghosts in cinema in the classic period but, though not new, it was rare enough and must have seemed thrilling then.
One can also appreciate, albeit in a more muted way, Lubitsch’s use of the mirror at the Prince’s salon. It’s a wonderful composition that not only allows us to view off-screen space but also works narratively to create distinctions between what the characters know and what the audience can see, thus creating suspense. In this instance of course what we see before Ma is the appearance of Radu in the mirror and a threat not only to the lifestyle we see her so enjoying but to her very life.
Last but not least one of the great pleasure of the film is to see Pola Negri in her prime and on display. She’s as alive as anything in the movie and gets to exhibit a range of characteristics: the virginal water girl by the well, the slave of Radu, the eyes of the mummy, the dis-orientated foreigner in the West, the exotic dancer, the stage star, and finally, the ‘last girl’. She’s vivid and vivrant as all of them.
Her dances are something to see. She wears a very skimpy, harem type outfit with the midriff on display and a a see-through shrug. She does a dance that begins with mix of Turkish belly dancing and ballet that eventually becomes a pastiche of Egyptiana. The men are entranced by the sashay of her hips, the women annoyed. Pola’s a dancer and moves her body sinuously; whoever choreographed those dances was clearly influenced by hieroglyphics. The effect is that of making Pola’s body the focal point of all that was dreamy, scary and sexy about the Orient. As if all of the markets, pyramids, sand dunes, sex and tombs were somehow condensed in the figure of Pola dancing. Two different types of spectacle rendered simultaneously interchangeable and other, enticing and threatening.
A film to see even in this degraded copy with that jarring and intrusive score by Rachel Gutches, whom I note has bagged the copyright for the whole thing. According to Hake, there are opening titles to the German version that are illuminating about Lubitsch’s self-critical attitude at this point. According to her, they tell us, ‘This film had a big budget, that is, two pal trees and was shot on location in Egypt, that is, in the Rudersdorf limestone mountains (near Berlin)’ (p.44). Had I known that, I might not have been as self-conscious about laughing at some sections.
Released in the USA on the 25th of June 1922.