Three and a Half Tombs: Part One
The Novel ​(1918-1920)

In 1917, Thea von Harbou was in the middle of changing careers again—only she didn’t realize it at the time.

​She was living in Nuremberg with her husband, actor Rudolph Klein-Rogge, and their extended family. She and Rudy had no children together (he had a daughter from his first marriage), but they were also supporting Thea’s mother and grandmother and Rudy’s mother. Rudy was acting in the local repertory theatre, but the war was on, and everything was scarce. To get by, they very much needed the income from Thea’s writing. Fortunately, her writing was going well, and among her creations for that year was a trifling little adventure novel set in the mystical India of her imagination.

And that novel was going to change her life in ways she could never have imagined.

Of course, her career  had already changed a few times already. Born in 1888, Thea von Harbou began her career as a writer at the tender age of nine when she sold her first short story to a newspaper. Encouraged by the sale, she continued to write and submit stories for publication, but she had to wait until she turned seventeen before she made her first big sale in 1905: a sentimental novel called If Morning Comes (Wenn's Morgen wird), first serialized in the Berliner Deutschen Zeitung (like the Saturday Evening Post, a popular, weekly news magazine that also published short stories and novels in installments). It would be another five years before she sold her second novel, The Next Generation (Die nach uns kommen), which was also serialized and then released as a book.

Between those two novels, her career took a detour through the theatre. She studied acting and then made her professional debut in repertory theatre in the town of Weimar, in 1908. She acted as a member of various repertory companies for approximately the next six years, but when she was not in rehearsal, she was still writing.

Thea von Harbou in her days as an actor. 
In 1913, she published her breakout work, a collection of short stories called War and Women (Der Krieg und die Frauen). Not exactly literature, the stories are all nationalistic, even jingoistic tales that seem to have enjoyed the great good luck of being in the right place at the right time. Intended to steel German women against the war everyone assumed was coming, the book took off, and sources say that the book sold in excess of 100,000 copies within a year.

Those sales were boosted by the fact that in the summer of 1914, the war that her book had predicted began. A that point, she married Rudy and never went back on the stage. For the next two years, she focused her output on war-themed stories and essays, although she did publish a few other things, including 1915’s Edgar-Allan-Poe-ish The Masks of Death: Seven Stories in One (Die Masken des Todes: sieben Geschichten in einer) and a war-themed adventure novel, The Escape of Betty Hoyermann (Die Flucht der Beate Hoyermann), which featured a plucky heroine.

This novel was her first attempt to copy the energetic, rum-te-tum pulp style of her idol, Karl May (rhymes with “sky” and “pie”)—the German Louis L’Amour or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Betty Hoyermann was a reasonable success, and in 1917, von Harbou cranked out another escapist novel, the one that would change her life: The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal).​

Where the idea for this novel came from is unknown. She is supposed to have enjoyed a life-long interest in India, and we can imagine her fascination with the romantic story of the Taj Mahal, the great tomb built by the Shah Jahan to honor the memory of his favorite wife. Perhaps von Harbou’s brief excursion into the dark world of Edgar Allan Poe inspired her to imagine a sinister twist to the story of the Taj Mahal. Perhaps she was inspired by Poe’s well known “Cask of Amontillado,” the story of a man who walls up his treacherous friend alive. Perhaps, too, she was influenced by the story of Verdi’s Aïda, with its grim finale of the lovers being sealed alive inside another great tomb. Whatever the sources, she conceived of a Taj Mahal built—not for love—but for revenge.

Once the manuscript was complete, it was probably published in installments in the Berliner Deutschen Zeitung—several chapters end with cliff-hangers—before her new publisher, Ullstein, issued the novel in book form in 1918. We assume, too, that the war-weary, German reading public gobbled it up.

In the meantime, Thea kept her typewriter’s platen spinning with more essays, novels, children’s stories, and another novel. In terms of story content, she began exploring religious mysticism, and in 1919, Ullstein issued a collection of five novellas with Medieval settings. The book was called Legends (Legenden) and included a tale called “The Story of Blessed Simplicia” (“Die Geschichte von der heiligen Simplicia”), the story of a young nun with mystical healing powers who is besieged by a villainous knight determined to disgrace her so she will lose her powers. In the end, she is saved by a miraculous intervention.

​And no less miraculously, that story came to the attention of one of Germany’s leading film producer-directors: Joe May (also rhymes with “sky” and “pie”). He was born in Austria in 1880, and in the relatively young German film industry, he was already an old-timer. He had begun making films in 1911, and through the war years, directed detective stories and melodramas that frequently starred his actress wife, Mia May.

Promotional Flyer for 
"The Indian Tomb"
(Das indische Grabmal)

Together, Joe and Mia’s films were so successful that after the end of the First World War, he managed to acquire a fifty-acre tract of land in Woltersdorf, just outside of Berlin, where he built a large, fully staffed film studio, eventually nicknamed “Maytown.” One of the first big projects he produced there was an epic film called Truth Triumphs! (Veritas vincit), a three-part film inspired by Griffith's 1916 Intolerance and filmed on Griffith-size sets. The film starred his wife and was well received. May then embarked on an even more grandiose project for his wife, an eight-part movie serial called The Mistress of the World (Die Herrin der Welt), each part of which was the equivalent of a feature-length film. (And just so we're all on the same page, "mistress" in this context is the female equivalent of "master." This is not a film about an international hussy!)

While that epic was still in production, May continued to look around for ideas for more films to star his wife—and one day, he happened upon von Harbou’s Legends ​ and “The Legend of Blessed Simplicia.” May paid Ullstein for the film rights and then announced that he would be making that story into a film, but the terms of von Harbou’s contract with Ullstein were somehow violated in the process. Thea and Rudy (who was by then beginning to get his feet wet as a film actor) confronted Joe May over the issue. Rather than abandoning the project, May embraced the idea of signing the popular,  established author to collaborate on the screenplay.

So, without her ever intending it, she was suddenly a screenwriter. Joe May directed the film, and it was successful, although no copies of the film are known to survive. However, May was pleased, and that was the important part, so he signed von Harbou to work on adaptations of some of her other works, and high on that list was her escapist novel, The Indian Tomb.

​From Novel to Screenplay

Joe May in 1918.
Mia May in Joe May's film Die Legende der heiligen Simplicia, with Alfred Gerasch as Ritter Rochus, the evil knight who wants to turn Simplicia from a saint to a sinner.
Briefly, von Harbou’s novel comprises ten chapters and a sort of epilogue. In chapter one, the German architect Michael Fürbringer accepts a peculiar commission to build a tomb for the wife of a wealthy Indian rajah. Chapter two follows Fürbringer’s journey to India and his troubled first night in the rajah’s palace. In chapter three, the rajah takes Fürbringer on a day trip to inspect the proposed site for the tomb, and along the way, the rajah expresses a lot of negative feelings for India. In chapter four, the Fürbringer discusses his preliminary plans with the rajah, who drops the bomb that the tomb is actually intended for his adulterous wife,  who is still alive. The text never states explicitly that he wants to entomb her alive, but he certainly is planning her death. Fürbringer is appalled and demands his release from the commission, but the rajah fears the Fürbringer will attempt to interfere with the his plans, and Fürbringer becomes the rajah’s prisoner.

In chapter five, Fürbringer sets off on a nightmarish expedition around the palace at night to find possible avenues of escape. Along the way, he thinks he sees his wife and chases after her. In the sixth chapter, Fürbringer  befriends a serving girl named Miriam; she speaks German, and she reveals that Fürbringer’s wife really is a “guest” in the palace. The seventh chapter puts the main story on hold while Fürbringer and the prince go shopping for jewels with which to ornament the proposed tomb, but in chapter eight, Fürbringer and his wife, Irene, are reunited, and the reader gets a lot of exposition about how she got there. In the ninth chapter, the rajah hosts a dinner party, which actually ends with Miriam's murder, and the tenth chapter follows Fürbringer’s and his wife’s flight from the evil rajah’s clutches.

The epilogue ties up some loose ends, but leaves others unresolved.

Authorial privilege.

All in all, Joe May made a good choice. The story is classic escapist stuff, perfect for the movies. Furthermore, it offers the possibility of many attractive production values, including exotic locations, a labyrinthine palace on a lake, elephants, legions of servants, dancing girls, images of various Hindu gods and goddess, ghostly apparitions, and a pit full of hungry tigers—not to mention a character with the irresistibly exotic name, “Ramigani.”

And yet, the structure of the book is not a good fit for a motion picture. To keep the reader in suspense, Thea von Harbou tells the story entirely from the architect’s point of view. Together, the reader and the architect have to evaluate events and characters to determine what’s really happening and who’s telling the truth. Several episodes are red herrings that provide color and atmosphere but do not advance the story. Also, the plot contains some conspicuous omissions: We never meet the prince’s faithless wife or her lover. Worse, Irene, the all-important architect’s wife, does not step onto the page until the eighth chapter.

Early Edition of Das Indische Grabmal
The wife’s delayed appearance was clearly unacceptable to Joe May because he intended the picture to be another showcase for Mia. Keeping the architect and his wife apart through most of the film  was okay as a story idea, but she could not be hidden from the viewers the way she is hidden from the readers.

The ending of the book is yet another problem. Von Harbou chose to end the novel in a way that recalls Frank R. Stockton’s infamous and infuriating 1882 short story “The Lady or the Tiger?” (If you’re not familiar with this story, click here .) The novel ends without deciding the fate of the prince’s unfaithful wife or punishing the evil prince’s treachery. Movie audiences were tired of dealing with the post-war period’s moral and ethical ambiguities; they wanted the movies to give them closure. A new ending would have to be devised, but that would require making more changes to the story.

Adapting the novel to the screen faced significant physical challenges as well. Joe May wanted another epic along the lines of Truth Triumphs! and The Mistress of the World, but a film on that scale would require a huge amount of money to be spent on building an enormous Indian palace with all the trimmings. Partly to address that problem, May elected to make the film in two parts. He’d already saved money by recycling settings for different episodes of The Mistress of the World. Making The Indian Tomb in two parts would amortize the cost of the sets and costumes over two films and double the potential box office returns. Financially, the plan made sense, but von Harbou’s book contained barely enough story for one film, so in addition to a new ending, a whole lot more plot would have to be devised to fill out an additional hour and a half. Where was all that new story going to come from?

To solve that problem, Joe May turned to his protege Fritz Lang. Although still fairly new to the movies, Lang had already demonstrated a talent for melodrama. Lang had served as assistant director on two of the eight parts of May’s Mistress of the World, and Lang himself had written the script for the eighth part, so May could be fairly sure that Lang understood how May would want the material handled. (Technically, Lang was under contract to Eric Pommer’s Decla company, but Pommer seems to have permitted Lang to work for May on Mistress of the World perhaps so that Lang could gain additional filmmaking experience.) Lang had also just completed filming the second part of his own rum-te-tum adventure serial, Spiders. If anybody could keep the pot boiling for a full three hours and more, it was Fritz Lang.

To sweeten the deal, Joe May promised Lang that he could also direct the film. As we explain in our article “
Strange Butterfly, ” Lang had become disenchanted with Pommer as a producer, so Lang then tore up his contract with Decla and went to work for May. (As it turned out, the partnership would be short-lived.)

On that basis, Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang set to work on adapting her novel for the screen. We can see that Lang clearly took the lead in this process because the resulting screenplay is heavy on melodramatic devices that Lang had used before (and would use again), but von Harbou’s influence is evident in the development of the female characters, who are imbued with much more complexity and compassion that are seen in any of Fritz’s previous screenplays. In general, Fritz was most at home with secret passages, mind control, mayhem, and femme fatales, but Thea infused the story with a humanity that had not been seen in Fritz’s previous work. Thus, right from the beginning, Thea and Fritz balanced each other—the sensational and the compassionate—a yin and yang that would characterize all of the films they would create together over a thirteen-year period.

Poster for the cut-down American release of Joe May's serial Die Herrin der Welt
​(Mistress of the World)

In the next section, we analyze how Fritz and Thea turned her little adventure novel into a two-part serial full of mysterious happenings and breathless excitement, but before going on, we need to explain that after The Indian Tomb’s original release in 1921, the film was not seen again for more than fifty years. (In America, the film was hacked down to ninety minutes and released under the ambiguous title Above All Law. In that form, the film flopped.) In the year 2000, David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates completed a restoration that was released in both VHS and DVD formats . Currently, Turner Classic Movies seems to control the broadcast rights. The English titles quoted in our article are quoted from that version by Ulrich Ruedel, based on a French 35mm print.

By contrast, von Harbou’s novel remained in print and was re-issued in new editions as late as 2003, but only in German. In 2016, we released the
first English-language version of this novel, which is available in various formats from Amazon. What follows is, thus, the first opportunity for most English-language readers to analyze Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s initial collaboration.