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  • “The eyes are alive!”:Envisioning History in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Eyes of the Mummy (1918)
  • Richard John Ascárate

“For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”

–Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (255)

On 3 October 1918—a little more than a month before Germany and the Allies signed the Armistice of Compiègne, revolution broke out in the German capital, and Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands—Berlin audiences settled into their seats in the Union-Theater am Kurfürstendamm to view the Universum Film Aktien Gesellschaft (UFA) release of Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Augen der Mumie Ma (1918; hereafter, The Eyes of the Mummy, so released in the United States on 25 June 1922). The film was Lubitsch’s debut as a dramatic director, intended to satisfy a growing demand for movies with exotic settings. The Eyes of the Mummy was well received, blending adventure, drama, and romance, and featuring performances by established stage and screen actors Harry Liedtke and Emil Jannings, as well as by rising Polish actress and erstwhile ballet dancer Pola Negri. A journalist for Lichtbild-Bühne, the first German weekly dedicated to cinema news and reviews, wrote that

The public was completely under the spell of Pola Negri’s terrific acting. And Emil Janning’s performance left such an overwhelming impression that one hardly knows who deserved the laurel wreath more. Ernst Lubitsch’s direction completed the overall artistic effect, thereby guaranteeing success. Pola Negri was the star of the evening. She could hardly reach the street because of the cheering, inescapable crowd.

Das Publikum war ganz im Banne des grandiosen Spiels von Pola Negri und neben ihr war die Leistung Emil Jannings von so überwältigendem Eindruck, daß man nicht weiß, ob er oder sie den Lorbeerkranz verdienten. Die Regie von Ernst Lubitsch vervoll-ständigte noch die künstlerische Wirkung des Ganzen und so konnte der große Erfolg auch nicht ausbleiben. Pola Negri war die Gefeierte des Abends und nur schwer war es ihr möglich, die Straße zu erreichen und sich der ihr zujubelnden Menge zu entziehen. (Lichtbild-Bühne, Nr. 40, 5 October 1918)1

Yet, despite the evening’s excitement, the Deutsches Kaiserreich was collapsing. With the 28 June 1919 signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the German Empire—short-lived and scattered from China to Africa to Micronesia—would cease to be with the loss of its colonies and territorial concessions. The deaths, mutilations, and incapacitation of millions of young men had already begun to transform German society, particularly in metropolitan and industrial centers. For many in the Union-Theater audience that October evening, the screening of The Eyes of the Mummy must have served as a welcome distraction from the social and political upheaval outside.

Nevertheless, films—like novels, paintings, popular songs, museum exhibits, cabaret shows, and even scholarly articles—do not arise independently from the political, social, and cultural milieu surrounding them. They entertain and distract, to be sure, but also respond to and often help frame contemporary public discourses, sometimes disclosing subliminal concerns and unresolved [End Page 45] issues to the attentive eye. In the case of The Eyes of the Mummy, can one discern—almost one hundred years after the film’s release—evidence of the tremendous changes taking place during the turbulent passage from the Wilhelmine to the Weimar era? Looking even more deeply, can one read in the flickering images the history of Germany’s centuries-long struggle to establish itself as a nation-state on par with rivals England and France?

On its surface, the film hardly seems a vehicle for the display of anxieties and unfulfilled fantasies besetting the German national psyche. Biographies of the director and cast of The Eyes of the Mummy suggest lives devoted to excellence in the performing and visual arts rather than to politics or nationalism of any stripe.2 Three decades later, Siegfried Kracauer, ever attune to psycho-cinematic traces of fascism in German cinema, gave only passing mention to Lubitsch’s exotic drama in his influential study, From...


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