The Eyes of the Mummy on TV


The Eyes of the Mummy
on DVD

by David Gasten
September 2003

Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy), featuring Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, and Harry Liedtke.  Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  Released by UFA (Germany), 1918.    The TV version was digitally restored by the National Film Museum and airs occasionally on Turner Classic Movies.  The DVD version reviewed here is available from Grapevine Video.
(Click to buy The Eyes of the Mummy from Grapevine Video.)


Emil Jannings drops Pola from the stairs in the climax of The Eyes of the Mummy (1918).  The fall was 100% real; Pola was injured in the fall and could have been killed had the pillows not been there.  (Click on photo for larger image)

It is rather rare these days to see a Pola Negri film on American television, so we can’t help but be elated that Turner Classic Movies has begun including  The Eyes of the Mummy in its repertoire.  The Eyes of the Mummy was a rather hard film to find on American shores until October of 2002, when TCM aired the National Film Museum’s restoration of The Eyes of the Mummy for the first time on October 6 of that year.  That very same month The Eyes of the Mummy was also released on VHS and DVD by Grapevine Video.  A second screening of The Eyes of the Mummy on TCM occurred on October 26, 2003, and based an that pattern it looks as though they may decide to screen it again in future days (let's hope so!). 

In this article we will give you some background on the film, give you some tips on how to appreciate it, and then give you the lowdown on the TCM and DVD presentations of the film and how they stand up to each other.

Summary of the Film

The Eyes of the Mummy was released in 1918 and was Ernst Lubitsch’s first dramatic picture and his first film directing Pola Negri.  This director/star team would go on to become movie legends when their international box office smash Madame DuBarry (released as Passion in the U.S.) was released in 1919.  Upon arriving on American shores the following year in 1920, Madame DuBarry broke all previous attendance records, single-handedly lifted the post-Great War ban on German films, and stirred so much interest in Lubitsch and Pola that they would become Hollywood’s first imported director and star.  But it was The Eyes of the Mummy that originally paved the way for that great success.

The TCM version of The Eyes of the Mummy opens with a brief prologue that summarizes how the film came into being.  That prologue is as follows:

1915—The young actor and film director Ernst Lubitsch has made various short film comedies (The Company Marries, Pinkus Shoe Palace, etc.)  He manages to convince his boss and mentor Paul Davidson with Union Film to support him in making his artistic dream come true of producing an elaborate film drama.  Davidson decides to risk a lot of money.  Lubitsch hires prominent young Berlin actors such as Emil Jannings and Harry Liedtke with a rate of up to 35 marks a day.  The female lead and the role, “The Mummy” was given to a young and ravishing Polish girl, recently arrived from Berlin, named Pola Negri.  She was an actress with a real Slavic temperament.  The film was produced with an unbelievable effort (two palm trees) partly in Egypt [and partly in] (Ruedesdorfer Kalkberge [[a chalk quarry by Ruedesdorf]]).  It was a major success.  In presenting this film today it may not seem to have the same tragic effect as it had at the time.

In the picture, a young, wealthy painter named Wendland (played by Harry Liedtke) travels to Egypt, where he overhears a story about the tomb of Queen Ma, a site far out into the desert that has reportedly driven everyone who has visited it mad.  Intrigued, the painter arranges to be taken to the tomb to see what makes it such a horrifying place.  When he arrives, he is greeted by an Egyptian man named Radu (Emil Jannings) who leads him to where the coffin is.  There he sees the eyes behind the coffin slowly open and come to life, just before the Egyptian tries to attack him.  The painter wards him off and opens the “coffin”, to find that it is actually an entrance into a small room, where a helpless young girl (played by Pola Negri) is held prisoner by the Egyptian’s Svengali-like hypnotic powers.  Wendland rescues Ma from the site and takes her back to Europe with him, making her his wife.  Radu, heartbroken at losing the girl, wanders into the desert and faints on the hot sands.  There he is found by a wealthy Prince, who nurses him back to health and makes him his personal servant.  When the Egyptian comes to, he swears vengeance on the girl for leaving him.

The painter hires a tutor to introduce the girl to European manners and customs and then throws a party to introduce her to his friends.  When Ma begins dancing a Middle Eastern dance at the party, she attracts the interest of a vaudeville manager, who signs her to a contract.  A few months into Ma's success on the vaudeville circuit, the Prince decides to go to one of the shows she appears in and, of course, takes his servant Radu  with him.  When Radu sees Ma on stage, he hypnotizes her from across the room and she faints in the middle of her act.

Later on, the Prince visits an art exhibit, which includes some paintings by Wendland.  He is particularly taken by a painting that happens to be of Ma and invites Wendland and Ma to visit his personal collection.  After looking at the collection, the three sit down to afternoon tea, and when they do, Ma happens to see Radu through a reflection in a mirror.  She goes into a trance, faints, and becomes deathly ill.  Sometime after recovering from the illness, the Prince gives Radu a letter to deliver to Wendland, telling Wendland he will purchase the painting of Ma, which is already in his possession.  When they receive the letter, Ma tells Wendland to go immediately to the Prince and cancel the purchase, which he promptly does.  In the meantime, Radu spots the painting of Ma, realizes it was painted by the same man he delivered the letter to, stabs the painting with his dagger and rushes to Wendland’s home in search of Ma.  When Wendland arrives to discuss the matter with the Prince, they go into the room and see Radu's dagger in the painting.  Immediately after this, they receive a phone call of a break-in at Wendland’s house, and realizing what is happening, they rush to Wendland’s home.  But they arrive too late.  Radu has already entered the house, having killed Ma and himself.

How to Appreciate The Eyes of the Mummy

The first thing most people think when they see the title The Eyes of the Mummy is that the movie will be an old-time horror film.  But when watching The Eyes of the Mummy, the first thing you need to do in order to best appreciate it is to not expect a horror film.  Forget every horror picture you’ve ever seen and let the picture tell its own story.  Keep in mind that this is 1918, and the horror film as we know it today had not been invented yet.  The Eyes of the Mummy is really a drama picture with supernatural and horror elements, despite the fact that TCM usually shows it for Halloween along with The Golem and Nosferatu, which both count as legitimate horror films before the genre was created.

On the other hand, yes it is directed by Ernst Lubitsch, but don’t expect the famous "Lubitsch Touch" directing style.  The Lubitsch Touch didn’t really start to take its own shape until the early 1920’s, when it started becoming apparent in pictures like Die Bergkatze (1921), Forbidden Paradise (1924), and The Marriage Circle (1925).  Again, just watch it and appreciate it for what it is.

The most disappointing part of the picture is the way Lubitsch handles the Mummy at the beginning.  Why did a girl’s eyes behind a fake coffin actually drive people (like the man at the hotel) mad?  Lubitsch tried, and for the most part succeeded, in building the suspense to the unveiling of the “Mummy”, but if the “Mummy” itself had been given a darker and more hideous treatment and had not been such a London After Midnight/Mark of the Vampire letdown, it would have worked much better.  But then again this is Germany in 1918 and they were still “working out the bugs” in motion pictures in that country.  If you can get past this disappointment and STOP EXPECTING HORROR, then you may have some fun with this picture.

The story itself really begins building with the discovery of the girl in the room behind the coffin—after the "Mummy’s" cover has been blown.  Watch Pola’s performance and notice how Pola makes you believe that she really is Ma.  And notice how she embodies each of the character’s changes.  When she first appears, you swear that she has a mustache and reeks of sharp underarm odor.  Her barbarism and her shyness in her new surroundings are all convincing and believable.  But by the time she meets the Prince later in the picture, she has adjusted to her surroundings quite well.  At that point she has become a proper and charming European lady, but still maintains a bit of her old Middle Eastern personality.  Then when Radu appears in her house at the end of the film, she returns to the original frightened, subservient role that we found her in at the beginning.

The story ends up coming to a heady climax when Radu (Jannings) breaks into Ma’s (Pola’s) boudoir and kills her.  Lubitsch uses an excellent slow-motion tracking shot to show Jannings closing in on Pola, which cuts back to Pola weakening in despair under Jannings’ spell.  Then, when Jannings takes her in one arm and lifts his dagger over her with the other, Pola dies instantly of shock.  Jannings and Pola are at the top of a small flight of steps, and when Pola dies, Jannings lets Pola go and she falls down the entire flight of steps.  Pola risked breaking her neck to do this stunt and was actually hurt in the fall, but survived it thanks to some pillows that were laid at the foot of the steps.  Pola mentions in her autobiography Memoirs of a Star, “Every time the picture was shown, [that] fall never failed to get a huge gasp from the audience.”  And it still packs a wallop today.  This sequence alone is worth the price of admission.

The Lowdown on the Two Versions

Generally when a movie that Grapevine Vdieo has in its catalog airs on TCM, film fans jump at the chance to get the TCM version, expecting it to look better than Grapevine’s edition.  But this time, it’s different—Grapevine’s version wins out on almost all counts.

The TCM and the Grapevine DVD editions of The Eyes of the Mummy utilize prints that come from the same print source; this is obvious because they both feature the same annoying piece of debris sticking out of the upper right hand corner of the screen.  The TCM version runs 63 minutes, whereas the Grapevine version runs 58 minutes.  This is not due to extra footage (all of the footage is exactly the same), but due to the addition of an introductory prologue and the translation of some German intertitles that required two intertitles instead of one due to space restrictions.

The TCM version’s only advantage over the Grapevine version is in the intertitles.  The TCM version utilizes the print source’s German intertitles with English translation, whereas the Grapevine version has English intertitles on a swirled brown background that looks a little too contemporary for the rest of the picture.  In addition, the Grapevine version has a number of noticeable misspellings in the intertitles; for instance “Ernst Lubitsch” became “Ernest Lubitsch” and “Pola Negri” became “Pola Negi”.  Not good, but not detrimental either.

But from here on out, Grapevine’s version comes out the more enjoyable of the two.  TCM’s version has a piano score my Douglas M. Prostik, whereas Grapevine’s has a compiled orchestra score.  The orchestra score carries the film better and has music selections more appropriate to the moods of the picture than the piano score.  For instance, when Harry Liedtke is in the tomb and is looking with tension at the “Mummy” and then at Emil Jannings, the orchestral score drives home the suspense in this sequence, whereas the piano score makes a half-hearted and only semi-convincing stab at it.  The orchestral selections are varied and lively, and carry the film well all the way through.  The piano score mostly uses variations on two motifs over and over, overuses trills (thereby making the picture look a little dated and hokey), and is full of “gaps” where the piano is doing very little.  Maybe the gaps are supposed to sound suspenseful, but generally they sound like dead air.  The music carries about 40% of the silent film’s entertainment value, and while a good score can elevate a picture, a bad score can shipwreck even a good picture.  The piano score isn’t necessarily awful as much as it is one-dimensional and flat—it simply does not do as much as it should to help enhance the picture.

The TCM version arrives to us courtesy of the National Film Museum, who supposedly had this film “digitally restored”.  But this “digital restoration” utilizes technology that will probably be laughable in ten years, as it manages to blot out much of the detail of the picture.  The original print source is too bright and looks rather washed out, so both versions inherit this problem.  However, the Grapevine version, although slightly fuzzier overall, leaves in enough detail to where the brightness problem isn’t overly noticeable.  Not so for the TCM print.  The “digital restoration” makes the film look contrasty all the way through, and proceeds to blot out much (and many times all) of the detail, so much so that it becomes painfully noticeable and interferes with one’s ability to enjoy the picture.  For instance, when Harry Liedtke and Pola are having tea in the ship’s tea salon, the teacups disappear into the table after the waiter sets them down.  Also, in the Cairo market scene, the people who are dressed head-to-toe in white literally look like ghosts.  And when Liedtke reads the letter from the Prince, the script is completely washed out and illegible.  At least in the Grapevine version you can squint and make out the words (if you can read German script, that is).  And in the Grapevine version you can still see the teacups, and tell that the “ghosts” in the market square are actually people dressed in white.  National Film Museum’s “digital restoration” of King Vidor’s Love Never Dies (1921) does the same thing, being too contrasty and losing detail; the only difference in that film is that the picture is too dark rather than too bright.  How a “restored” print can look worse than an unrestored one is beyond me, but the National Film Museum has managed to accomplish exactly that.

Now this is not to discourage anyone from watching the TCM version when it airs.  However, don’t be surprised if you come away from the picture feeling like it needs something.  It does need something—a better presentation.  And that better presentation is what makes the Grapevine DVD edition the better of the two.

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