The one truly remarkable fact about this novel is that it has been filmed three times.
Or, to state the facts a bit more accurately, three different motion pictures have been based on the story told in this novel. The first was a silent film made in 1920. The entire film was shot in Germany, and a ton of money was lavished on spectacular interior and exterior sets. According to some sources, the result was the most expensive film made in Germany to that date. The other two were sound films: a 1939 black and white film and a color film released in 1959. Both of the sound films were German-language films, and both utilized extensive location photography in and around the legendary City Palace of Udaipur, a small city in western India and, today, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Constructed as epic tales, all three were long films, too, each one lasting more than three hours. Extraordinarily, all three films were released in two separate parts and shown like a serial. The first part of each film ended with a kind of cliffhanger, and the audience had to come back to the theater the next week or the next month to find out what happened next.
We know, right?
Many novels have been made into movies—who knows how many? And some of those novels have been filmed twice. But the number of novels that have been filmed three or more times must be very tiny by comparison—maybe no more than two or three dozen, not counting multi-part stories, such as The Hobbit, or sequels that continue the same characters into new stories, such as the James Bond films.
In fact, the Three-or-More Club has a fairly exclusive membership. Some of these novels, as you might expect, are literary classics, such as Jane Eyre, Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Les Misérables, Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace—you know, the novels that people are forced to read in school. But a fair number of them are exactly the reverse, strictly pulp-fiction penny dreadfuls that most people would not consider literary in any sense: The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Tarzan of the Apes, and the list goes on.
But what all the novels in the Three-or-More Club have in common is that they tell compelling stories that feature memorable characters in engaging situations—and those are most definitely the credentials of Thea von Harbou’s The Indian Tomb. Also, these stories seem to speak to readers across generations, and this book qualifies there, too. Since its original publication in 1918, The Indian Tomb has been reprinted and issued in many different editions as late as 2003 (the publication year of the German text used as the basis for this translation). More recently, the book has even been issued as a German audio book.
And yet—to the best of our knowledge—this is the first time the novel has ever appeared in English, so you’re to be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it before.
Thea von Harbou (1888-1954) was a prolific German writer whose career lasted nearly a half century. She published around forty books, including collections of short stories, novellas, poems, and essays. She also published children’s books and about a dozen novels, among which The Indian Tomb was her sixth. Four of those novels were actually novelizations of screenplays she wrote for her director-husband Fritz Lang. Although not her best or most representative works, all four of those novelizations have been published in English. Her novelization of the film Metropolis (also directed by Fritz Lang), remains the best known of her books today, and has attained a kind of cult status, re-issued in deluxe illustrated editions and even adapted as a graphic novel.
In fact, she is generally better known as a screenwriter than as a novelist. About the time she published The Indian Tomb, she began writing screenplays for the early German film industry, and once she started working for the movies, all other types of writing began to take a backseat in her career. She achieved great success as a screenwriter in both the silent and sound eras and was even elected the first head of the German Sound Film Screenwriters Association. At one time, she was reputed to have been the highest-paid screenwriter in Germany.
She also claimed to have had a lifelong interest in India. Where this enthusiasm came from initially is unknown, but in the years leading up to the First World War and in the years that followed, many Europeans were interested in depictions of Middle Eastern and Asian subjects in paintings, travel books, popular literature, etc.
One reason for this interest is thought to be the legacy of colonialism, as explained in Edward Said’s controversial 1978 book Orientalism. Written while he was a professor of literature at Columbia University and a member of the Palestinian National Council, the book argues that the colonial adventures of the European powers developed many regrettable stereotypes in European thinking, namely that European culture is inherently superior and non-Western cultures are all intellectually inferior, founded on superstition, and morally suspect. He labeled as “Orientalism” all books, films, paintings, décor, and such that depicted non-Europeans in this way. In an interview he gave to the Media Education Foundation in 2005, he explained that part of his motivation for this book was
the constant sort of disparity I felt between what my experience of being an Arab was, and the representations of that that one saw in art. I’m talking about very great artists, you know, like Delacroix and Ang and Gérôme and people like that, novelists who wrote about the Orient, like Disraeli or Flaubert, and you know the fact that those representations of the Orient had very little to do with what I knew about my own background in life.
Thea von Harbou’s enthusiasm for India was clearly focused through this lens, but more importantly, some of her ideas seem to have come from one of her favorite authors, Karl May (1842-1912), an enormously popular writer of German adventure and travel fiction. His works are still in print today in many languages—think of him as a Teutonic Edgar Rice Burroughs or Louis L’Amour—and over the years, his fans have included some very impressive people. According to Nicole Perry,
Hermann Hesse, Albert Einstein, and Albert Schweitzer have all praised the works of Karl May, and all three have cited these works as a means of escape and hope in their lives. According to Hesse, “May is the most brilliant representative of a truly original type of fiction—i.e., fiction as wish fulfillment. . . . . His brightly coloured and gripping writings represent a type of fiction that is indispensable and eternal.” Einstein’s comments are of a more personal nature and echo that of an entire generation. “My whole adolescence stood under May’s sign. Indeed, even today he has been dear to me in many a desperate hour.”
Thea von Harbou was also one of May’s devoted fans.
In 1918, the pain and suffering imposed on Germany by the disastrous First World War had created a thriving market for escapist literature. Encouraged by her publisher, von Harbou decided to try her hand at providing some, and she clearly modeled her efforts on the adventure novels of Karl May. We know, for instance, that she was familiar with Karl May’s so-called Orient Cycle, in which May’s fictional counterpart, Kara Ben Nemsi (a German adventurer who travels through the Ottoman Empire), constantly astounds his Muslim acquaintances by quoting extensively from the Muslim holy book of the Quran. Kara Ben Nemsi’s quotations are probably the closest that von Harbou ever got to the Quran because, as Reinhold Kiener tells us, “In her twenties, she would amaze visitors by reciting almost flawlessly the invocation to the 100th sura of the Quran in the May translation.” Kiener affirms May never published a full translation of the Quran, so whatever she was quoting must have been memorized from one of May’s novels.
Sadly—at least from our point of view today—The Indian Tomb is absolutely awash in this kind of Orientalism, and that problem is compounded by the fact that von Harbou chose to write the book from a point of view often called third person limited. From the first to the last page, readers follow one character throughout: a German architect named Michael Fürbringer, who receives a mysterious invitation to travel to India, where he is commissioned to build a fabulous tomb that will exceed the beauty of the Taj Mahal. Along the way, we see India only through Fürbringer’s eyes, but he has little actual knowledge of Indian customs and religious practices, so his descriptive powers are limited to his very European, racist reactions. However, von Harbou’s affection for India—even if it is largely the India of her imagination—is genuine enough, so her architect tends to be more condescending than overtly Orientalist.
Ironically, though, von Harbou’s shallow, stereotyped knowledge of India got a thorough reboot later in her life. Her 1922 marriage to Fritz Lang quickly soured because he couldn’t keep his hands off his leading ladies. Although she remained Lang’s only screenwriter between 1920 and 1933, she also wrote for other filmmakers, and she had many friends in the industry, including Conrad von Molo, an editor and assistant director, who—unlike von Harbou—had actually been to India. He hung out with a group of Indian graduate students in Berlin, and they spent many long evenings discussing Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. One of those students was a young man named Ayi Tendulkar, and through von Molo, Thea von Harbou met Tendulkar in January of 1933. At the time, she was forty-two and he was twenty-five, but apparently, their ages didn’t matter. And when Lang came back to the apartment one night and found her in bed with Tendulkar. . .
Well, let’s just say that sauce for the goose was not sauce for the gander.
Soon after, von Harbou and Lang divorced, and he left Germany to pursue his career in Hollywood. She then unofficially married Tendulkar in Berlin in a Hindu ceremony. The Nazis would never have permitted an official wedding between a German woman and a non-Aryan Indian man, so this marriage was dangerous for both of them. By 1938, their relationship was attracting too much official attention, and she determined that for his safety, she needed to end the relationship and send him back to India.
Afterward, she remained a friend and mainstay of support for other Indian students in Berlin, and based on their stories of growing up in India under harsh British rule, she eventually produced another novel set in India: Aufblühender Lotos (Blooming Lotus), published in 1941. Not an Orientalist fantasy, this novel tells the tragic story of a troubled young Indian man struggling to find his own identity in the gulf between the British Raj and his traditional culture. Gritty, realistic, and informed by the first-hand experiences of the students she knew, this book depicts the real India before the outbreak of the Second World War.
It’s a good book and a good read—but it’s never been filmed, much less translated into English (although it remains on our workbench).
So, in the end, it is von Harbou’s enthusiasm for her subject—and not her knowledge of that subject—that energizes The Indian Tomb and impels readers through its strangely engrossing narrative.
Preposterous, exotic, romantic nonsense?
But what more could you ask for?
And that’s the reason it’s been filmed three times.
—John Mucci & Richard Felnagle