Eyes of the Mummy/Die Augen der Mumie Ma (1918/1922) *½
So a week or two ago, I’m conducting my monthly ritual of scanning next month’s cable guide for movies I might want to watch, and I stumble across an entry for something called Eyes of the Mummy. Now never in my life have I heard of this film, but I’m a big sucker for mummy movies (even despite the fact that I can only recall ever seeing two or three good ones— talk about irrational optimism), so I note down all the programming information, and then start doing a little research. After a bit of hunting, I figure out that the movie was originally called Die Augen der Mumie Ma, and that it came out in 1918— at this point, I’m thinking, “A German mummy flick from 1918! Who would have guessed?! Hell, I wonder if this could maybe even be the first mummy flick...” Well, in answer to my own question: no. Eyes of the Mummy can’t be the original mummy movie, because in order for that to be the case, it would be necessary to have a mummy in the movie somewhere! That negative answer, however, raises a possibility of its own: Could this be instead the first horror film with a completely misleading cheater title?
Our hero, if such he may be called, is a painter from Germany by the name of Albert Wendmann (Harry Liedtke). While traveling in Egypt (presumably on the hunt for exotic subjects for his art), he one day comes across a teenage girl (Pola Negri) washing clothes in a small desert oasis. Okay. It’s official— the Germans during the teens and early twenties of the last century subscribed to completely different notions of feminine beauty than do present-day Americans. I’ve suspected as much ever since I saw The Golem/Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam, but this clinches it. You see, I’d say the oasis chick is actually rather homely, but Albert is immediately so smitten with her that even after she runs away into the surrounding wastes the moment she lays eyes on him, he can think of nothing else.
It is presumably in order to divert his mind from this newfound obsession that Albert does what he does the next day. While hanging out on the veranda at the Palace Hotel, Wendmann overhears a conversation between the hotel manager and one of his more illustrious guests, Prince Hohenfels (Max Laurence). Hohenfels is looking for excitement, and he has heard that there is a recently excavated burial chamber not far from Cairo. The manager knows the tomb of which Hohenfels speaks— it belonged to someone named Queen Ma— but he advises against an excursion there; evidently everyone who sets foot in the tomb comes down with some terrible nervous affliction, and never recovers. In fact, there’s one such man sitting out on the veranda now, drooling and babbling to himself in a semi-catatonic state. When Albert hears this, he rushes right over to bother the unfortunate man, pestering him for information about the tomb and his experience there. All he can get in response, though, is the cryptic phrase, “The eyes are alive!” But as you might imagine, the next time we see Wendmann, he’s wandering around the bazaar downtown, trying to hire a guide to take him to the tomb of Ma.
As it happens, the best Wendmann can get is some good directions and a rented donkey. Nevertheless, he sets out anyway, and is a bit surprised to discover the tomb inhabited by a crazy Egyptian man named Radu (Emil Jannings, who played the devil in the 1926 version of Faust). Radu (whom, incidentally, the intertitles won’t identify by name until the last five minutes of the movie) offers to show Albert about the burial chamber— in exchange for a small fee, one assumes. After a brief tour, Radu takes Wendmann to the deepest part of the tomb, where the sarcophagus of Ma is propped up against the far wall. This coffin turns out to be one of the swank mummiform models, and wouldn’t you know it, no sooner does Albert see the thing than the eyelids carved into its face open up to reveal a pair of living eyes! Evidently Wendmann is made of sterner stuff than the man on the Palace Hotel’s veranda, because he instantly rushes up to have a closer look. Radu doesn’t like this very much, however, and he tries to stop Wendmann, leading to a struggle that ends with the Egyptian apparently being wounded by Albert’s revolver. With Radu out of the way, there’s nothing to impede as leisurely an inspection as Wendmann wants to make, and he discovers that the “sarcophagus” is really just a craftily disguised door leading into yet another chamber, the eyes nothing but a pair of peepholes. And whom do you suppose Wendmann finds when he opens up this door? That’s right— it’s the girl from the oasis. She, coincidentally, shares the same name as the woman who was buried in the tomb all those centuries ago, and the way she tells it, she has been living there for some years, ever since she was abducted by Radu. Wendmann offers to take Ma away with him to Europe, and the girl is thrilled at the prospect. After returning to Cairo, Albert books passage on the next available ship.
But Ma will not be rid of Radu so easily. While Wendmann was whisking her off to Cairo, the wounded madman was crawling in futile pursuit. Luck was with Radu, however, because he managed to get himself picked up by Prince Hohenfels (evidently he found something to do out in the desert after all), who took him into town and secured him the services of a doctor. In gratitude, Radu signed himself on as the prince’s servant, and in that capacity, he joined Hohenfels on the journey back to Germany. Would you believe they’re on the same ship as Albert and Ma? Sure you would. And by a further coincidence, Wendmann and Hohenfels happen to live right down the street from each other back home. This means that when Ma gets a job as a dancer in a variety show (it’s really better not to ask...), and when that variety show starts getting rave reviews in the local papers, Hohenfels is going to want to come see what all the fuss is about. And he’s going to bring Radu with him.
Now if you’re like me, you’re probably figuring that Radu will turn out to be some kind of reincarnated sorcerer, who has either enslaved the spirit of his Forbidden Love, Queen Ma, or simply waited around for her to be reincarnated too, so that he can assert himself over her a lifetime or two hundred down the road. You’re probably also figuring that Radu will use his fortuitous proximity to the girl to get his scheme back on track after the setback he suffered when Wendmann discovered her hiding out in the tomb. If so, you’re wrong on all counts. Though the rest of the movie will tease us mercilessly with hints that this is the direction we’re heading, Radu will turn out to be just your garden-variety crazyman, Ma will turn out to be nothing but a perfectly ordinary 18-year-old Egyptian chick, and we’ll never once see even a single mummy. And on top of that, we’ll be presented with some stunningly stilted performances (Underacting?! In a silent movie?!?!), two of the worst dance numbers in movie history, and an ending that neither makes a whole lot of sense nor feels like an honest attempt on the filmmakers’ parts to resolve any of the conflicts in the story. Director Ernst Lubitsch is said to have been forced into making this movie by the heads of the UFA studio, who had him under contract, and who wanted him to give them something other than the breezy comedies that were apparently his forte. Trust me, the director’s unwillingness shows in Eyes of the Mummy’s every second.