1/4, 1910s, Ernst Lubitsch, Review, Thriller

The Eyes of the Mummy

If there’s one kind of film Ernst Lubitsch is known for it’s…globe-trotting adventure stories? Okay, it’s early in his career, well before he’d developed the Lubitsch touch much less made it his signature, but this is just so strikingly different from everything I know about him that it’s quite a curiosity on its own. Unfortunately, that’s about the end of the interest because the narrative limitations that Lubitsch had on display in the lightly amusing Shoe Palace Pinkus bite him harder here in a story that demands more plot-driven mechanics in order to deliver thrills.

Albert Wendland (Harry Liedtke) is a painter who goes to Egypt to explore like wealthy young men do. In the desert he sees a young woman getting water, Ma (Pola Negri), who runs away at the sight of him (this makes less sense in retrospect). While sitting at his hotel the next day, he hears tale of the mysterious tomb of the Mummy Ma from a guide to Prince Hofenfels (Max Laurence), warning him that anyone who goes to it goes mad. Naturally, Albert decides to go, and upon finding a guide, he meets Radu (Emil Jannings) who seems to live just outside the entrance to the tomb, happy to guide Albert in. This is shady stuff, but Albert goes and sees the mysterious sights within. He sees a mummy’s face that opens its eyes! Truly the stuff to drive a man mad. Well, when Albert isn’t driven mad, he ends up fighting Radu and discovering Ma behind the door where he hears her story about how she was kidnapped by Radu two years ago and cannot escape (so her presence at a well alone and running from another man who might have been able to save her feels…unsupported). Anyway, Albert steals her away with her permission back to England while Radu pursues, collapses in the desert, and gets picked up by Prince Hofenfels who decides that yes, he will bring this random Arab man into his household back in England. Because why not?

All of this is fine. It doesn’t work very well, but it functions well enough to stand on its own as an opening. I get it. Nothing terribly exciting happens, but the set design of the temple may be cheap, but it still looks pretty good. There’s some interesting lighting in there, and the desert scenes look pretty good as well. Nothing really exciting, but it’s fine.

In England, the movie pretty much just spins its wheels for about thirty minutes. Albert introduces Ma to English society…twice, and there are close calls between Ma and Radu where Radu almost finds out about her then does find out about her but can’t do anything about it. There’s a scene where Ma sees a vision of Radu in her bedroom and passes out. It seems like it’s meant to just increase an overall sense of danger, but the characterization is so thin at this point and the storytelling so loose and poorly connected that it doesn’t work.

There’s a final confrontation built around a painting of Ma that Albert does that leads to a tragic ending, and nothing is felt because it’s all kind of silly and not really built very well.

This really just wasn’t Lubitsch’s area. Maybe he could have developed more, but even at this very early stage in his career, it’s obvious that he was more naturally inclined for light comic stuff rather than plot-driven thriller filmmaking. It’s also funny to note that The Eyes of the Mummy could have been a title of the Mummy franchise from Universal a couple of decades later, especially since those mummies never had eyes of their own. It feels like a missed opportunity.

Rating: 1/4


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