A young painter takes a working holiday in Egypt and becomes intrigued by stories of a curse on the ancient tomb of Queen Ma. When he visits the temple, he becomes involved with the lives of the natives who are living there, rescuing a young girl from the clutches of an evil villain.
German silent production shot in the last days of World War One starring Emil Jannings and Pola Negri, who were both global superstars at the time. The director was top draw too: Ernst Lubistch who later made his name in Hollywood with sophisticated comedies, such as ‘Trouble In Paradise’ (1932) and ‘Ninotchka’ (1939). Strange bedfellows for the first ‘Mummy’ movie, you might think, as they beat ‘Karloff The Uncanny’ to the punch by over a decade. Except they didn’t. Not really. Archaeologist Howard Carter had been conducting high-profile digs in the Valley of the Kings for several years up until the outbreak of hostilities, and this had helped revive stories of cursed tombs, which had been around for at least a hundred years. So, the ‘Mummy’ angle here is simply some extra spice for the box office. This isn’t a horror movie at all, rather a straightforward romantic melodrama, with a whiff of exotic Egypt.
So, instead of any supernatural chills, we get heroic dauber Henry Liedtke (noticeably more natural than the bigger names in the cast) rescuing Negri from the clutches of the evil Jannings and taking her back to civilisation (well, a place where people have servants and hold parties anyway). Once there, her native dance moves attract the attention of a famous theatrical impresario (who carries ‘ready to sign’ contracts around in his pocket). Soon, she’s the toast of the town, but Jannings is also lurking in the vicinity, ready to pounce with a twirl of his moustache.
Performances are fairly typical of the time, with Jannings delivering little more than a generic Arab villain. Negri is less reserved as she flings herself about a lot and pulls some fairly ridiculous faces by modern standards. And for a girl who has supposedly lived her whole life in the desert, she doesn’t seem to have much idea of how to get on a horse. There’s also a fair amount of guff about ‘people staying in their place’ and that reaching for something more will inevitably lead to serious and probably tragic consequences.
Although Germany was still embroiled in the last days of World War One, there is no political complexion to the film. ln fact, the country surrendered only a few weeks after it was released. The defeat seemed of little consequence to the local film industry, which went from strength to strength almost immediately afterward. Expressionism arrived in ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1919) and great strides in technical innovation and storytelling were pioneered by Paul Wegener as ‘The Golem’ (1920) and, particularly, F. W. Murnau with classics such as ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) and ‘The Last Laugh’ (1924). Fritz Lang staged epic productions such as ‘Dr Mabuse, der Spieler’ (1922), ‘Siegfried’ (1924) and ‘Metropolis’ (1926). All these films handled much bolder themes, and more complex plots and character interaction than the clichés on display here. By comparison, this film is crude and rudimentary in most every department.
An early desert song that’s little more than a curiosity now, easily eclipsed by the far more accomplished productions that came out of Germany shortly afterward.