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"The eyes are alive!" Envisioning history in Ernst Lubitsch's The Eyes of the Mummy (1918).

"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 Compiegne, 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 Kurfurstendamm 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-Buhne, 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 uberwaltigendem Eindruck, daB man nicht weiB, ob er oder sie den Lorbeerkranz verdienten. Die Regie von Ernst Lubitsch vervoll-standigte noch die kunstlerische Wirkung des Ganzen und so konnte der grobe Erfolg auch nicht ausbleiben. Pola Negri war die Gefeierte des Abends und nur schwer war es ihr moglich, die StraBe zu erreichen und sich der ihr zujubelnden Menge zu entziehen. (Lichtbild-Buhne, 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 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 Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. (3) Nevertheless, through close readings of select scenes from the film, I shall demonstrate how certain characterizations, props, and actions reveal social and political undercurrents then swirling about Germany, as well how they conjure exhilarating--and thereby painful--memories of the nation's colonial heyday. Specifically, I shall show how The Eyes of the Mummy buttresses the illusion of national power despite the end of German colonialism and betrays anxiety over the loss of masculine power following the rise of the Modern Woman and Germany's ignominious defeat in the First World War.

"The eyes are alive!"

The Eyes of the Mummy depicts the story of Albert Wendland (Harry Liedtke), a German artist who sojourns in Egypt to inspire his flagging muse. (4) Reclining under the sun at the Palace Hotel, he overhears a conversation between adventurous Prince Hohenfels (Max Laurence) and the hotel manager. The Prince wishes to visit the famed burial chamber of Queen Ma. The manager warns him that every visitor to the chamber has suffered "terrible misfortune," directing the Prince's attention to another guest who groans fitfully under the ministrations of a nurse. The convalescent cries: "The eyes are alive!" His curiosity piqued, Wendland arranges with some Cairo locals to guide him to Queen Ma's chamber.

He arrives on horseback the next day and is greeted by a scraping caretaker, the "Arab" Radu (Emil Jannings), who beckons Wendland into the chamber. Radu shines his torch on a face crudely carved in stone, whereupon the eyes in the face slowly open. Instead of collapsing in fear, Wendland suspects a trick and approaches a door to the side of the face. Radu tries to hold him back. A fight ensues. Wendland prevails, flings open the door, and finds a quivering young woman, the "mummy" Ma (Pola Negri), inside a secret compartment. Falling into his arms, Ma relates in flashback how Radu had kidnapped her two years before, compelling her obedience if not her love through the mysterious power of his gaze. Wendland tells her that he will free her, promising never to leave her side. The two escape on horseback. Radu regains consciousness, sees that his captive has fled, and swears by Osiris that he will not rest until he has found her. He sets off into the desert but succumbs to heat, exhaustion, and his injuries. Prince Hohenfels and his entourage find and care for Radu, who, upon recovering, begs the Prince to engage him as a servant. The amused aristocrat consents. Unbeknownst to one another, the two parties--Hohenfels and Radu, Wendland and Ma--return to Germany.

Ma strives from the outset to fit into European society as her love for Wendland grows. She even attains a degree of fame as an exotic variety show dancer for the theater impresario Bernhardi. The story ends tragically, however, once Radu learns that Ma's new home lies close to the Prince's. Breaking into her room while Wendland is momentarily away, Radu again uses his telepathic gaze to draw Ma back to him. Sensing her resistance, he draws a dagger hidden in the folds of his robe to stab her through the heart. Ma dies of shock. Remorseful, Radu turns the blade on himself just as Wendland and Hohenfels rush into the room, the former crying, "Too late!"

Time Out of Mind

Despite the exotic storyline and mise en scene, The Eyes of the Mummy shares thematic and visual elements with several Weimar films ostensibly produced for light entertainment. Such elements include travel to distant lands suspended in time and the rescue of foreign beauties from the savageries of their native cultures. For example, Fritz Lang's two-part serial Die Spinnen (The Spiders; Der goldene See [The Golden Sea], 1919, and Das Brillantenschiff [The Diamond Ship], 1920) offers viewers a lavish, convoluted, and highly popular adventure series in which wealthy scholar Kay Hoog traverses Central and South America in pursuit of buried treasure. He discovers a time-preserved, gold-laden Incan civilization, rescues a beautiful Incan princess, descends into an opium-infused subterranean Chinese city, and evades pursuit by a mysterious international spy ring (the eponymous Spiders). (5) Willi Wolff's Um den Erdball, 1. Teil--Indien, Europa [Around the Globe, Part 1--India, Europe, 1925] and 2. Teil--Paris bis Ceylon [Around the Globe, Part 2--Paris to Ceylon, 1925] depicts a serial love story whose development spans several countries and the skies above and between them. And in Joe May's two-part Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb, 1921), written by Lang and Thea von Harbou, the Maharajah of Bengal summons English architect Herbert Rowland to his opulent palace to build a tomb for his wife, who has been condemned to death for adultery. In a reversal of the usual male-rescues-female theme, Rowland's fiancee, originally left behind, travels to India and, after a number of exotic episodes--one of which involves Rowland contracting leprosy induced by a curse laid on him by a Hindu ascetic buried to the neck in sand--brings the architect back to England.

Plots and props in these films were meant to dazzle, to induce a sense of wonder, but they also referred to current events. Certain Weimar era films seemingly shared an awareness of contemporary archaeological developments. Likely not lost on viewers of The Spiders, for example, was the 1911 discovery of Machu Picchu--the Incan estate atop a mountain northwest of Cusco, Peru--by Yale explorer and later United States Senator Hiram Bingham. The Eyes of the Mummy was released only five years after the public display in Berlin of artifacts discovered at Tell el-Amarna, Egypt, by Ludwig Borchardt, German Egyptologist and director of the German Imperial Institute for Egyptian Archaeology. (6)

Shot entirely in Berlin, the exotic plot and far-flung scenarios of The Eyes of the Mummy allowed Lubitsch to exploit cliches, stereotypes, and other shorthand devices already codified in theater and literature. For example, the narrative movement across vast territories (by implication, starting in Germany, proceeding to Egypt, and then back to Germany) depicts what Anne McClintock identifies as the colonial journey into a virgin interior, a narrative trope found as well in H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899). That is, the colonialist/conqueror advances in geographical space but recedes in historical time (McClintock 30). Hence, Radu, an "Arab" and presumably a Muslim, swears not to Allah but to the "high priestess" Osiris, an obsolete--and male--god of ancient Egypt. While first references to Osiris occur in the Fifth Egyptian Dynasty (~2494 BCE-2345 BCE), his cult was dissolved in the sixth century CE when the Emperor Justinian sent Narses to destroy the sanctuaries of Isis and Osiris, arrest their priests, and remove their images to Constantinople (Bury 371). Likewise, in The Spiders, protagonist Kay Hoog travels to a hidden Incan empire that somehow eluded final physical and spiritual conquest by the Spaniards in 1572.

Though opening in a desert just outside a staged Cairo (7), no Egyptian, Arab, or African actor appears in the film. Instead, Emil Jannings plays Radu in black face:


A schema of visual binaries presents itself immediately:
Radu                     Wendland

dark                     white
crouching                upright
passive                  active
suspended historically   modern and progressive

Like many a foreign antagonist before and since, Radu crouches, dark and duplicitous; Wendland, white and heroic, maintains an upright posture throughout. One Weimar-era review noted how Emil Jannings "spielt einen Schwarzen mit Wollperucke" ["plays a black man with wool wig"] (Kinematograph 164, 25 August 1933). Radu lurks among Egyptian ruins, passively eking out an existence from hapless passersby who fall into his trap; a cosseted Wendland enjoys the modern amenities of a Western hotel, actively seeking intellectual enrichment astride a hired horse. During the transatlantic voyage to Germany, Wendland instructs Ma in European manners. Having been rescued from a burial chamber, Ma's maritime passage may be read as a kind of cultural resurrection into modernity, a metaphorical baptism from an old life of fear and enslavement to a new one of love and endless possibilities.

Such visual assertions of the superiority of Western customs, manners, education, and morals over those of foreign or darker Others are today transparent and even then were commonplace in cinema, certainly in films emanating from Western nations. One need only recall Anna May Wong as a Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924) or the black-faced characters in The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915). But German films of the exotic adventure genre bore unique and complex scientific and cultural lineages. Germany had no history of slavery, barely even having a history as a nation-state. Yet, while entertaining the masses, films like The Eyes of the Mummy and The Spiders also edified by staging national power that was at best tenuous, certainly belated, often imaginary, and always contingent upon ubiquitous visual display. What Edward Said observed about British and French works on the Orient holds equally well for Weimar film:

[E]ach work on the Orient affiliates itself with other works, with audiences, with institutions, with the Orient itself. The ensemble of relationships between works, audiences, and some particular aspects of the Orient therefore constitutes an analyzable formation--for example, that of philological studies, of anthologies of extracts from Oriental literature, of travel books, of Oriental fantasies--whose presence in time, in discourse, in institutions (schools, libraries, foreign services) gives it strength and authority. (20)

Thus, not simply the pedestrian racism of an erstwhile colonial power, but anthropology, archaeology, and ethnology as well intersect at a deeper level in The Eyes of the Mummy, particularly in a scene depicting Radu praying among a collection of archaeological artifacts in his master's study:


The crowded tableau seems to visually overpower the supplicant Radu. (9) For a contemporary spectator, such scenes were not unusual, for "[elaborate combinations of furniture, bric-a-brac, and above all, densely patterned wallpaper create[d] cluttered compositions in many films of the era" (Thompson 57). Extending a concept from Roland Barthes's analysis of photography, I would argue that the expectation and aesthetic acceptance of such images were part of a film's stadium. That is, they invoked "a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, ... but without special acuity," allowing the viewer to "participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions" (Barthes 26), to become lost, as it were, within the image or, in this case, within the film narrative. Continuing along this line, I would further contend that in this scene the exotic statues, vases, and objets d'art disturb the studium, forming a constellation of puncta, those attractive details whose mere presence changes the reading of the image (Barthes 42). Almost at a near century's remove, they unveil and recreate in miniature a German tradition of representing the Other as something observable and empirically knowable, able to be measured, categorized, and ultimately dominated. Indeed, as I shall show, Radu himself may be considered one of the Prince's objects of cultural display. To fully unpack the scene, one must recall the lesser-known (at least, compared to that of other European powers such as England, France, and Belgium) colonial history of late-nineteenth-century Germany.

Colonies and Other Collectables

The history of the European colonization of Africa is long, varied, and brutal. (10) Scholars have identified several reasons for the incursions of England, France, Belgium, and other nation-states into the continent, but disagreement will likely always remain regarding the preeminence of any one of them. For example, political/strategic, cultural, and economic factors have all been advanced as causes (Khapoya 103-106). European nations vying for international power saw African territorial possessions as symbols of strength and prestige. Humanitarians, scientists, and the religious saw a so-called "Dark Continent" in need of aid, exploration, and spiritual conversion. Governments and industrialists rushed to exploit vast natural (and human) resources and untapped markets, fulfilling Marx's contemporaneous observation: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere" (10). Whatever the motivations, by the onset of the First World War, only four percent of the African continent was not under European control (Khapoya 100).

In addition to military coercion, European nations deployed visual strategies to project cultural and political power during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1851, for example, England staged the first international display at the Crystal Palace in London. Known as the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, the monumental fair featured not only British mechanical and technical innovations, but also the arts, crafts, and archaeological artifacts of England's colonial possessions. Nations, like individuals, often feel compelled to keep up appearances, and so France, the United States, and Germany followed suit with their own exhibitions.

Still, Germany has always presented a special case in the history of nations and colonialism. While sixteenth-century Spanish, French, and British monarchs cast about the Americas, Asia, and Africa in search of trade routes, gold, spices, and colonies, Germany as a nation did not exist. Instead, hundreds of German principalities fought one another over parcels of land, hampering national development. As Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of a newly united German Empire (following victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71), asserted in 1898,

The territorial sovereignty of individual princes had developed during the course of German history to an unnatural degree. Individual dynasties, Prussia included, had fragmented the German people for their own private property. The sovereigns never enjoyed a greater historical right over the body politic than under the Hohenstaufens and Charles V. Absolute state sovereignty of the dynasties, imperial cities, and imperial villages was a revolutionary achievement at the expense of the nation and its unity.

[Die territorial Souveranitat der einzelnen Fursten hatte sich im Laufe der deutschen Geschichte zu einer unnaturlichen Hohe entwickelt; die einzelnen Dynastien, Preu|3en nicht ausgenommen, hatten an sich dem deutschen Volke gegenuber auf Zerstucklung des letztern fur ihren Privatbesitz, auf den Souveranen Anteil am Leibe des Volkes niemals ein hoheres historisches Recht, als unter den Hohenstaufen und unter Karl V. in ihrem Besitz war. Die unbeschrankte Staatssouveranitat der Dynastien, der Reichsstadte und Reichsdorfer war eine revolutionare Errungenschaft auf Kosten der Nation und ihrer Einheit.] (268)

Despite initial opposition to the idea of German colonies, the Bismarck bowed to public and commercial pressures and convened the Berlin Conference (1884-85), insinuating Germany into the already ongoing scramble for African territory. In fact, the conference merely formalized what had been the de facto partitioning of the continent among European powers. In the end, Germany came away with only disparate remainders. Its empire eventually encompassed colonies, protectorates, and concessions in Togo, East Africa, Southwest Africa, Cameroon, Samoa, Kiautschou (modern-day Qingdao), the northeastern part of new Guinea, the islands of Opolu and Sawaii in Samoa, and the Caroline, Pelew, Marianne, and Marshall Islands in the Pacific (Henderson 66).

Despite financial losses incurred through their administration, the colonies stoked nationalist pride, allowing Germans to assume their

international place in the sun, a place many Germans nostalgically waxed their nation had occupied long before. (11) Already in 1879, five years before Germany's first colonial acquisition, Friedrich Fabri, director of the Barmen Rhine Missionary Society, published a pamphlet, Bedarf Deutschland der Colonien?/Does Germany Need Colonies? He responded with a strong affirmative to the rhetorical title:

When, centuries ago, the German Reich stood at the head of the States of Europe, it was the foremost trading and seagoing Power. If the new German Reich wishes to entrench and preserve its regained power for long years to come, then it must regard that power as a cultural mission and must no longer hesitate to resume its colonizing vocation also. (Fabri 181)

Some historical background is in order. The "German Reich" of "centuries ago" to which Fabri referred was the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806), a vast cluster of territories (the largest of which was the Kingdom of Germany) that dissolved after Napoleon's victory in the Battle of Austerlitz. The "new German Reich" whose "regained power" was to be "entrench[ed] and preserve[d]" began in 1871 after Germany's victory in the Franco-Prussian War and ended with Germany's defeat in the First World War. The "colonizing vocation" implied, of course, imposing German administration, secured and maintained by military force, upon hapless non-European populations in distant lands.

The colonial vocation was not for everyone. In 1905, only 6,000 Germans, predominantly civil servants and soldiers, lived in the various German colonies and protectorates (Kitchen 169). Thus, most Germans would likely never see or experience firsthand these distant lands and their inhabitants were it not for an expanding cultural network that reminded them of the fatherland's superiority and achievements. For colonies also served academic and commercial markets and purposes, supplying exotic artifacts, flora, and fauna to meet the demands of German ethnological museums and public displays. Exhibits sometimes overflowed with items, the calculated abundance meant to signify national power. As H. Glenn Penny observes,

Professional, municipal, and even national reputations were linked to acquisitions, as was a museum's level of funding. For all of these reasons, an overriding passion for possession dominated ethnology by the turn of the century, and the disorderly displays ethnologists had been tolerating as a temporary inconvenience eventually became a permanent condition. (103)

The German Colonial Exhibition of 1896, for example, was modeled after displays in ethnological museums, one visitor commenting how a "wall was covered with ethnological objects from East Africa" ["Die Wand war mit ethnologischen Gegenstanden aus Ostafrika bedeckt"] (Deutschland und seine Kolonien 53, 58):


As presumed repositories of anthropological truth, German museums practiced an aesthetic of display in the late 1890s that emphasized universality and completeness. Curators lined walls and loaded glass cabinets--which themselves had undergone technological innovation, metal frames replacing wooden ones to sustain larger panes of glass--to maximum capacity, appealing to the visual and consumerist tastes of a burgeoning middle class, the same middle class that was beginning to frequent motion picture theaters. (12) The crowded, expanded visual field served a pedagogical function of museums to train the spectator's vision. Even the visitor's movements were prescribed so as to replicate those of the "anthropologist-explorer who traverses the physical and cultural landscape, encountering assorted scenes of indigenous life" (Griffiths 41). Similarly, montage in adventure films such as The Eyes of the Mummy and The Spiders replicated these movements and exotic visions for immobile spectators, immobile whether because of movie house etiquette or an unwillingness to travel.

Because of Germany's history of belated nationhood, Edward Said correctly argues that there was

nothing in Germany to correspond to the Anglo-French presence in India, the Levant, North Africa. Moreover, the German Orient was almost exclusively a scholarly, or at least a classical, Orient: it was made the subject of lyrics, fantasies, and even novels, but it was never actual, the way Egypt and Syria were actual for Chateaubriand, Lane, Lamartine, Burton, Disraeli, or Nerval. (19)

I would respond, however, that Said underestimates the value of such scholarly activity to the collective German psyche and its resonance across seemingly disparate cultural fields and practices. Visual reminders of Germany's colonial possessions and accomplishments began to pervade society at all levels, public and private, thanks in part to the emerging technology of cinema.

Reel Natives

Not surprisingly, because of the contemporaneous development of motion pictures, German anthropological and ethnological interests spilled over to the cinema, for both edification and entertainment. (13) Turn-of-the-century Viennese physician and anthropologist Rudolph Poch, for example, and German ethnographers Karl Weule, Hans Schomburgk, and Count von Mecklenburg created several film documentaries on Africa and its inhabitants, bringing to domestic audiences inexpensive and accessible images of German colonial possessions. These films helped Germany construct a (finally) unified national identity amongst the other established European nations (Oksiloff 5).

German zoos also contributed to the collection and representation of the Other. In 1874, Carl Hagenbeck, highly successful purveyor of wild animals to zoos and circuses around the world, hit upon the idea of exhibiting Sami people (or, as he called them, "Lapplanders") in their native regalia performing their daily routines in a facsimile village amidst the Hamburg Zoological Garden. In his memoir, Hagenbeck writes that the suggestion for the display of humans came from the animal artist Heinrich Leutemann, who mentioned in a letter that a forthcoming supply of imported reindeer "would necessarily create a lot of interest were [Hagenbeck] to place them alongside a Lapplander family, who, of course, would also need to bring their tents, weapons, sleds, and entire households" ["musse doch gropes Interesse erregen, wenn [Hagenbeck] die Renntiere von einer Lapplander-familie begleiten lassen wurde, die dann naturlich auch ihre Zelte, ihre Waffen, Schlitten und ihren gesamten Hausrat mitbringen mu|3te"] (80). This first vdlkerschaustellung, or folk performance, was so popular that Hagenbeck soon followed up with many more exhibits from other countries, even launching European tours:

Lapplanders and Nubians, Eskimos and Somalis, Kalmyks and Indians, Senegalese and Hottentots, the inhabitants of the most varied zones, even those from the Antipodes extended their hands to one another during their travels through the capitals of Europe in the coming years. [Lapplander und Nubier, Eskimos and Somali, Kalmucken und Indier, Singhalesen und Hottentotten, die Bewohner der verschiedensten Zonen, ja Antipoden reichten einander in den kommenden Jahren gleichsam die Hande in ihren Zugen durch die europaischen Hauptstadte] (80). (14)

This frequent, profuse, and indiscriminate display of foreign people and artifacts raised public expectations of cultural and anthropological authenticity in other media, and was imperially sanctioned, as well:


To meet spectator expectations, German film directors such as Fritz Lang, Joe May, and Friedrich Murnau sought expert advice and genuine native artifacts and costumes from dealers like Johannes Umlauff and his brother, Heinrich, curator of the Ethnological Museum in Hamburg. Heinrich's name alone in film credits bestowed an aura of ethnographic authenticity and scientific legitimacy, however convoluted and unlikely the plot. Anthropologists also attributed truth value to the objects themselves in their museum collections, truth independent of the contexts from which the objects were removed (Zimmerman 149). Presumably, this truth value accompanied the objects into new contexts, including film sets. (15) Figure 5 below, from Lang's The Spiders, depicts one of Umlauff's tableaux, which compares favorably with figures 2 and 3 in attention to ethnographic detail:


Karl Richter, set designer for Max Reinhardt, carried out similar work in The Eyes of the Mummy with comparable meticulousness.

Thus, for the price of a movie theater ticket, cosmopolitan Germans--and those who aspired to be--could be exposed to colonialism, anthropology, and ethnology through a discursive network encompassing newspaper articles, government reports, public lectures, international exhibits, and documentary films. These affiliations charge the scene of Radu praying in the Prince's study with deeper significance. That is, Radu may now be seen not merely as a stock foreign character (shifty, black-faced, hunched, borderline comical) but--along with the certifiably-authentic artifacts surrounding him--as an icon of a belated colonial empire in its last throes. To forestall future imperialist ambitions, the Treaty of Versailles would prohibit the chastened and stripped Second Reich from acquiring colonies altogether, an injunction that Hitler would later exploit through his atavistic demands for lebensraum (living space). (16)

But if one may trace through pious Radu the colonialist nostalgia of a defeated empire, one can also discern through Ma's seductive dancing male anxiety over the emerging social and economic shifts from the deployment, disablement, and death of millions of young German men. Along with mustard gas, the first technological war also begot the modern phenomenon of die neue Frau, the New Woman.

Barefoot, But Not Pregnant

To introduce Ma to society, Wendland throws a party in his home. Ma wears a silk gown and high-heeled shoes her rescuer has given her for the occasion. As the tuxedoed guests arrive, Ma becomes increasingly agitated. She retreats to her bedroom, sees her Egyptian clothes lying on the bed, and caresses her face with them. The guests, noticing her absence, look for her. They find her in the bedroom, barefoot and once again clad in her exotic and revealing native garb. They pull her back into the living room and ask the musicians to "play something Oriental" for her. The music slowly takes control of the young woman body and soul as she begins a seductive dance to the obvious satisfaction of the assembled males:


Always on the lookout for fresh talent, Bernhardi, famous theater impresario, pulls out a contract on the spot and exhorts Ma to sign for an extended engagement at his Alhambra Theater. (17) She does so and--just as she has in the more intimate setting of Wendland's parlor--later entrances sold-out crowds with her expressionistic performances.

Though Ma is of humble, foreign origin, her precipitous trajectory in Berlin society reflects that of countless German women during and just after the war. Between August 1914 and the beginning of 1915, the number of men mobilized increased from 2.9 million to 4.4 million, attaining a peak of over 7 million by 1918, for a wartime total of 13 million (Ferguson 267). When many of these young men were subsequently killed or disabled, women of necessity began to occupy positions in German offices and factories. (18) Though still expected eventually to marry and bear children, young white- and blue-collar female workers nevertheless partook of new freedoms that came with earning their own wages. Fashion, hairstyles, and sexual mores changed, the average marital age rose, the birth rate decreased, and women became more and more visible beyond the traditional confines of kinder, kuche, kirche (children, kitchen, and church), giving rise to the New Woman of the Weimar era. As a fashion-conscious, even erotic, independent wage-earner, Ma would seem to fit comfortably within the New Woman identity. True, she continues to enjoy Wendland's hospitality, but the film does not indicate that she and her rescuer marry. Indeed, the expectation at the time was that women would relinquish employment upon marrying, thus rendering Ma's ability to sign the contract with Bernhardi--particularly as an exotic dancer--somewhat problematic were she a typical hausfrau. (19)

As in the scene described before wherein Wendland encounters Radu, Ma's society debut lends itself to analysis on different levels. One may view the depiction merely as an interlude, an opportunity for Pola Negri, an actress and dancer new to the German screen, to display her terpsichorean charms. Again, cultural binaries present themselves:
Ma                          Guests

exotic                      conventional
exposed                     high-buttoned
barefoot                    shod
lithe and expressionistic   stiff and circumscribed

Contemporary spectators would likely have registered these differences even then. Looking back from Brazilian exile more than two decades later, Austrian author Stefan Zweig recalled of postwar Europe that "the waltz disappeared in dance, giving way to Cuban and negroid figures, while fashion invented ever more absurdities, with strong emphasis on nudity" ["... im Tanz verschwand der Walzer vor kubanischen und negroiden Figuren, die Mode erfand mit starker Betonung der Nacktheit immer ander Absurditaten"] (344). Meanwhile, other visual arts quoted previous representations, adding to the gravitational pull of earlier topoi. Hence, the subject of a 1921 lithograph by Weimar artist George Grosz:

Such radical deviations from traditional tastes notwithstanding, Wolfgang Schivelbusch sees in dance styles of the Weimar era an outlet for psychological and emotional release. The dances allowed spectators and participants to escape the nervous tensions brought on by modernity and the collapse of social and political order, their swaying movements to new rhythms taking "over the whole body and then the mind--a state experienced as a form of intoxication" (Schivelbusch 268).


Barbara Hales has pursued the phenomenon even more deeply, analyzing the significance of seductive dances and movements of female protagonists (and their effects on diegetic male spectators) in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Arnold Fanck's Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain, 1926) and, to a lesser extent, in Richard Oswald's Unheimliche Geschichten (Eerie Tales, 1919) and Henrik Galeen's Alraune (1928). She observes that female dancers in these films, having relinquished self-control through music-induced trances, exert powerful psychological influence over their male spectators. Hales argues that "[l]ike the sexually liberated New Woman, the expressive dancer uses freedom of motion to convey her freedom of thought," and is "hypnotic both in the sense of alluring her masculine audience and casting a spell over them (537). She further asserts that the "hypnotic powers of the trance-dancer capture the anxiety over the New Woman and her threat to male subjectivity," and, more ominously, the "restoration of the civic order is predicated on subduing her" (545). (20)

In some cinematic cases, the masculine attempt to re-exert control ends violently. For example, Maria, the dancer in Metropolis (who is actually a robot facsimile of her flesh-and-blood countepart) is burned at the stake by an angry mob. Ma's dancing clearly has a hypnotic effect on her audience:


She also fares no better than Maria. Radu discovers that Ma is living in Wendland's house and, jumping a gate to the property, finds Ma, kills her, and then kills himself, just before Wendland and Prince Hohenfels burst into the room. The threat to male subjectivity has been quelled.

Life Imitates Art

Given the professional affiliations of the Wilhelmine/Weimar cinematic (e.g., Lang, May, Hagenbeck) and scientific (e.g., the Umlauffs, Hagenbeck) communities, one might expect overlap in their cultural productions, a mutual appreciation for each other's craft. After all, movies, colonial exhibits, zoos, and museums were all available in the public sphere, were all inexpensive displays for popular consumption and participation. But as Said argues, "Orientalism imposed limits upon thought about the Orient" (43), obtruding even within the personal realm.

One early morning in February 1926, seven years after release of The Eyes of the Mummy, Count Harry Kessler--Anglo-German diplomat, socialite, writer, and patron of the arts--had just bid an early-morning farewell to the last of his dinner guests when he received a phone call from his friend, the theater director Max Reinhardt. When Kessler went to meet him, he witnessed the following scene, entered in his diary:

[T]hey wanted me to come over because Josephine Baker was there and the fun was starting. So I drove to [Karl Gustav] Vollmoeller's (21) harem on the Pariser Platz. Reinhardt and [Oscar] Huldschinsky (22) were surrounded by half a dozen naked girls, Miss Baker was also naked except for a pink muslin apron.... Miss Baker was dancing a solo with brilliant artistic mimicry and purity of style, like an Egyptian or other archaic figure performing an intricate series of movements without ever losing the basic pattern. This is how their dancers must have danced for Solomon and Tutankhamen. Apparently she does this for hours on end, without tiring and continually inventing new figures like a child, a happy child, at play. She never even gets hot, her skin remains fresh, cool, dry. A bewitching creature, but almost quite unerotic. Watching her inspires as little sexual excitement as does the sight of a beautiful beast of prey. The naked girls lay or skipped about among the four or five men in dinner-jackets. (Kessler 279) (23)

A close reading of the diary entry reveals nearly all of the elements-scantily-clad women, tuxedoed men, exotic choreography, an aroma of depravity, even references to Egypt and the Orient (i.e., harem, muslin, Solomon, Tutankhamen)-staged in Ma's debut scene. And just as Ma's performance garnered a contract, so does Josephine Baker's naked dancing inspire commercial thoughts:

Vollmoeller had in mind a ballet for her, a story about a cocotte, and was proposing to finish it this very night and put it in Reinhardt's hands.I said I would write a dumb show for them on the theme of Song of Solomon, with Miss Baker as the Shulamite.Miss Baker would be dressed (or not dressed) on the lines of Oriental Antiquity while Solomon would be in a dinner-jacket, the whole thing an entirely arbitrary fantasy of ancient and modern set to music, half jazz and half Oriental, to be composed perhaps by Richard Strauss. (280)

Despite the coolness and distance characteristic of the Count's diary entries over the years, this description is suffused with unresolved tensions. Kessler weaves into his observations contradictory discursive threads (Oriental antiquity/dinner-jacket, half jazz/half Oriental) running through the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany in general and The Eyes of the Mummy in particular. That is, Baker and Ma fascinated male spectators while at the subconscious level inducing anxiety among them. In the formulation of Homi Bhabha, these empowered female cultural transplants--dark-complexioned exponents of the New Woman identity--occupy the hybrid position of stereotype, wherein transpires a "conflict of pleasure/unpleasure, mastery/defence, knowledge/disavowal, absence/presence" of "fundamental significance for colonial discourse" (75).

Ever the gentleman and diplomat, Kessler tries to overcome Baker's psychological (and Orientalism's imaginative) hold over him without resort to violence. Still, his language vacillates between affirmation and denial, betraying his inner conflict. Thus, Baker is a "bewitching creature" but "quite unerotic," cavorting nude about Reinhardt's home but inspiring "as little sexual excitement as does ... a beautiful beast of prey" (279). As noted, Ma is not as fortunate in her last confrontation with male subjectivity. Arriving at the scene of Radu's murder-suicide, Wendland proclaims, "Too late!" However, in that Radu adheres to the discursive stricture of resolving male spectator anxiety over the depiction of a New Woman (and a foreign one at that) without incurring European blood-guilt, his timing would seem to be just right.


Despite the collapse of the Deutsches Kaiserreich a month after The Eyes of the Mummy opened, the director and actors involved went on to more or less successful if careers in the film industry. (24) The question arises as to whether they were aware of the more serious subtexts to their representations, to their efforts to entertain the "inescapable crowds." Writing about her early filmmaking experiences years later, Negri recalled that,

Although the world was going to pieces around us, Lubitsch and I enjoyed many hilariously funny moments as we worked together on films in those early days of Ufa. It may be that only in the Berlin of those times could we have flourished so successfully. The tragicomedy of life in Germany was our metier. Even our jokes had a doomsday quality to them. (Quoted in Kreimeier 46)

Still, enmeshed within a network of colonialist images and practices, Weimar spectators would likely have taken Lubitsch's visual parade of exotic climes, Others, and artifacts for granted, unaware of their subtle power to reflect mass desires and conjure feelings of nostalgia. After all, such imagery (and the various institutional frameworks surrounding it) had been around for more than two generations by then. As Said asserts, once attained, knowledge of the Orient no longer requires application to reality; knowledge is what gets passed on silently, without comment, from one text to another. Ideas are propagated and disseminated anonymously, they are repeated without attribution; they have literally become idees recues-, what matters is that they are there, to be repeated, echoed, and re-echoed uncritically. (116) (25)

In carrying out this archaeological study of select images in The Eyes of the Mummy, I have tried to intervene in their uncritical propagation and acceptance, to arrest one more round of echoes, even if at a century's remove. Certainly, German society and politics are different now than they were at the end of the First World War, and no one would argue that Germany aspires to colonial power and domination. Yet, another world war had to be endured to finally vanquish that fantasy. Political ideologies, governmental systems, and maps do change, but not human nature. Today, in watching the dodgy, grease-painted Radu, the benevolent, Caucasian Wendland, and the sultry, vulnerable Ma strut and fret their hour upon the screen, we multiply our enjoyment by recalling the cultural, scientific, and political history that saturate the images. In failing to make such connections, in failing to heed Benjamin's warning at the start of this essay, we may still be entertained, but we also lose an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.


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Bismarck, Otto von. Gedanken undErinnerungen. Berlin: Deutsche Buch-Gemeinschaft, 1928.

Blackbourn, David. History of Germany 1780-1918: The Long Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Bury, J.B. History of the Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I. to the Death of Justinian. v. 2. New York: Dover, 1958.

Deutschland und seine Kolonien im Jahre 1896. Amtlicher Bericht uber die erste deutsche Kolonial-Ausstellung. Edited by Graf v. Schweinitz, C. v. Beck, and F. Imberg. Berlin: Verlag von Dietrich Reimer (Ernst Vohsen), 1897.

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Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Fermor, Patrick Leigh. A Time of Gifts: Of Foot to Constantinople: From the Hood of Holland to the Middle Danube. New York: New York Review Books, 2005.

German Colonial Office. "How Natives are Treated in German and in French Colonies": A Reply to the Statements Published in the "Journal de la Republique Frangaise" of November 8, 1918 and January 5, 1919. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer (Ernst Bohsen), 1919.

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Hake, Sabine. "Lubitsch's Period Films as Palimpsest: On Passion and Deception," in Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television. Edited by Bruce Arthur Murray and Christopher J. Wickham. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1992: 68-98.

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Translated by Charles Kessler. New York: Grove, 1971.

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Thompson, Kristin. "Subduing the Cluttered Background: Set Design" Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005: 53-69.

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Eyes of the Mummy (1918). Director Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Emil Jannings, Pola Negri, Harry Liedtke, and Max Laurence. Grapevine Video, 2002.

The Spiders (1919/20). Director Fritz Lang. Cast: Karl de Vogt, Ressel Orla, Lil Dagover. Image Entertainment, 1999.

Richard John Ascarate

Washington, D.C.

(1) Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are by the author.

(2) For example, Ernst Lubitsch was born 1892 in Berlin to Russian Jewish immigrants. Rejecting his father's profession of tailor, he joined Max Rheinhardt's Deutsches Theater in 1911. He became a film actor in 1912 and made his directorial debut two years later with the comedy, Fraulein Seifenschaum (Miss Soapsuds, 1914). According to Lotte Eisner, "History" [Eisner's capitalization] was for the "one-time shop assistant ... never to be more than a pretext for telling love stories in sumptuous period costume: silks, velvets and trimmings delighted his knowing eye" (82). Pola Negri was born Apollonia Chalupiec in 1897 in Lipno, Poland. Trained at the Polish Imperial Ballet, she contracted tuberculosis shortly after dancing her first major role. Discovering the literary works of Ada Negri during her convalescence, she adopted the Italian poet's surname and, disease having ended her ballet career, turned to acting. Accepted by the Warsaw Imperial Academy of Dramatic Arts, Negri was cast as a dancing girl in a Polish production of Sumurun and referred to Max Reinhardt in Berlin, where she met Lubitsch. Emil Jannings, born Theodor Griedrich Emil Janenz in Rorschach, Switzerland, in 1884 was also a member of the Deutsches Theater. Although he would later act in films sympathetic to Nazism, his professional pursuits until then were more conventionally dramatic than ideological. He had already starred in twenty-two films before playing in The Eyes of the Mummy. Harry Liedtke, born 1882 in Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) had acted on stages in New York and Berlin and would make several films with Lubitsch.

(3) Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947).

(4) A number of synopses, particularly those online, describe Wendland as an English artist. No scene or intertitle indicates that he comes from or even lives in England. Indeed, during the course of the film, he receives a note addressed to him: "Herrn Albert Wendland, Parkstrasse 21" (To Mr. Albert Wendland, Park Ave. 21). The note itself, while grainy, is written in German and signed by "Furst Hohenfels" (Prince Hohenfels). As well, writing--partially cut off by the camera frame--on a door in the theater where Ma performs appears to read "Buhne ... Eintritt" (Stage. Entrance). While these visual clues do not absolutely preclude Wendland's British provenance or an English setting, they do suggest that the action transpires in a German-speaking land. The rationale for asserting that the land in question is Germany and not Austria or Switzerland will become clear during the development of my analysis of Ma.

(5) For a fuller analysis of the colonialist elements in this film, see my "'So that Asia can become great': The Representation of Eastern Cultures in Fritz Lang's Die Spinnen (1919)" in Germany and the Imagined East, edited by Lee M. Roberts (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2005): 143-158.

(6) Among these was the life-sized bust of Nefretiti, which was kept secret from the public until 1923 and not displayed until 1924.

(7) Scenes featuring Egyptian sand dunes took place in the Rudersdorfer Kalkbergen, a limestone quarry near the German capital.

(8) All screen captures from The Eyes of Mummy Ma are from the Grapevine Video edition cited in the filmography.

(9) For a discussion of Lubitsch's conceptual approach to and execution of set design, including illustrations of lighting equipment and its effects in several of the director's films, see the chapter, "Subduing the Cluttered Background: Set Design," in Kristin Thompson's Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I. Sabine Hake notes that "Lubitsch's period films shared their strong emphasis on set design and hence on mise en scene with other films of the early twenties." She further remarks that the "classical German cinema depended, more than other national cinemas, on the innovative work of its set and costume designers," resulting in a "'metaphysics of decor' that, while meant to support story and characters, often dominated all other cinematic elements" (Hake 87-88). She does not, however, pursue possible colonialist imperatives behind the visual constructions.

(10) Too long, in fact, to provide more than a cursory discussion as background to the present analysis. The curious reader would be well served by consulting Vincent B. Khapoya, The African Experience (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2012); Robert W. July, A History of the African People (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1998); and Basil Davidson, Africa in History (London: Phoenix Press, 1992).

(11) One historian notes that "German possessions in Africa, Samoa, and New Guinea turned out to have embarrassingly little economic significance," attracting few settlers because the colonies were established just when German emigration sharply declined and "those who did leave the country preferred the USA" (Blackbourn 252). Another observes that only "0.1 percent of German exports went to the colonies, and likewise only 0.1 percent of imports came thence," and that by "1905 only two percent of German capital was invested in the colonies" (Kitchen 169).

(12) As Siegfried Kracauer observed in 1928: "Today all segments of the population stream to the movies, from the workers in suburban movie theaters to the haute bourgeoisie in the cinema palaces. The single largest segment of these new audiences, presumably, is composed of low-level white-collar workers, whose number has increased not only in absolute but also in relative terms since the rationalization of our economy." (307)

(13) The first public screening of a film--a short by the Skladanowsky brothers--took place in the Wintergarten (Variete) theater in Berlin on 1 November 1895. Native German film production did not arise until 1910, having finally received financial backing from dubious bankers. (Hansen 159-160)

(14) For a first-hand account of the origin and progress of Hagenbeck's volkerschaustellungen, see his Von Tieren undMenschen (Berlin: Vita Deutsches Verlagshaus, 1909). For a more comprehensive and formal historical account, see Hilke Thode-Arora Fur funfzig Pfennig um die Welt. Die Hagenbeckschen Volkerschauen (Frankfurt am Main and New York: Campus, 1989). Unfortunately, neither of these books has been translated from the German; however, Raymond Corbey does an excellent job for the English reader of putting such "ethnographic exhibits into the wider context of the collecting, measuring, classifying, picturing, filing, and narrating colonial Others during the heyday of colonialism" (338) in his excellent article, "Ethnographic Showcases, 1870-1930" (CulturalAnthropology 8.3[1993], 338-369). And for a lushly-illustrated, comprehensive history and analysis of Hagenbeck's production and use of "theme space"-animal parks, ethnographic exhibits, and film sets--see Eric Ames's Carl Hagenbeck's Empire of Entertainments (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).

(15) As Walter Benjamin observes: "[T]he technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced." (221)

(16) That Germany would permanently lose its colonies was not a foregone conclusion. In 1919, the German Colonial Office published the report, How natives are treated in German and in French colonies, to expose France's "wholly and solely ... hate-engendered desire to exclude Germany forever from the possession of colonies and to increase France's own already excessive empire" (German Colonial Office ... 38). More elegantly, Englishman Patrick Leigh Fermor in 4 Time of Gifts (1977), his account of a youthful pedestrian tour from London to Constantinople, captured contemporary political tensions in his description of an encounter with an inebriated German in 1933 Heidelberg:

That night at the inn, I noticed that a lint-haired young man at the next table was fixing me with an icy gleam. Except for pale blue eyes set flush with his head like a hare's, he might have been an albino. He suddenly rose with a stumble, came over, and said, 'So? Ein Englander?' with a sardonic smile. 'Wunderbar!' Then his face changed to a mask of hate. Why had we stolen Germany's colonies? Why shouldn't Germany have a fleet and a proper army?" (Fermor 70)

(17) The name of the theater, derived from the Arabic for "the red fortress," inserts a further note of Orientalism.

(18) Females in the labor force increased in France and Britain as well, but not quite as drastically as in Germany. By the end of the First World War, the proportion of women in the German industrial workforce had increased from 35 percent to 55 percent, with a total of 5.2 million newly employed German women (Ferguson 267-268).

(19) "The change in women's fashions was a reflection of changes in women's role in society. The romantic notions of marriage as a partnership between self-actualizing equals was [sic] short-lived and the patriarchy was quick to recover the lost ground. A bourgeois woman's aim in life was to get married and have a family. This necessarily involved obligations and self-sacrifice, but it did not stifle the desire for elegance, refinement, and a lively social life. A woman's life was determined by her father, her brothers, and her husband. Men and women were unequal before the law, and were educated separately and differently. Women could not go to university and thus were unable to enter the professions; the one exception was teaching, but this only applied to unmarried women. A woman was required to relinquish her teaching post on marriage." (Kitchen 156)

(20) "Yet their [women's] very participation in industry aroused long-standing male proletarian anxieties: women were 'usurping' men's jobs, traditional male wage-rates were threatened. This last fear had a basis in fact--male-female wage differentials were narrowing. But the hostility, backlash even, was part of a larger anxiety among skilled workers, who also saw their differentials eroded vis-a-vis the unskilled. This was a concern that pitted the middle-aged against the young as well as men against women. The war therefore sharpened old divisions within the working class." (Blackbourn 356)

(21) German playwright and screenwriter who wrote the script of Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, Josef von Sternberg, 1930), starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings.

(22) A coal and iron industrialist whose art collection included works by Rembrandt, Botticelli, Rubens, and Franz Hals.

(23) In 1926, Josephine Baker had created a sensation in Berlin with the Revue Negre, a jazz entertainment troupe.

(24) In 1922, Lubitsch emigrated to Hollywood, where he became known for sophisticated comedies of manners. That same year, Negri, having signed a deal with Paramount Pictures and divorced a Polish count, came to the United States, whereupon she carried on love affairs with--among others--Charlie Chaplin and Rudolf Valentino. She married (and divorced) a Georgian prince before succumbing to pneumonia in San Antonio, Texas, at the age of 90. Jannings received the first Oscar for Best Actor in 1927/28, though his heavy accent curtailed an American film career with the advent of talkies in 1927 (The Jazz Singer, Alan Crosland). Liedtke worked with Joe May and Marlene Dietrich but was killed in 1945 by an invading Red Army soldier.

(25) See, for example, my "Have You Ever Seen a Shrunken Head?": The Early Modern Roots of Ecstatic Truth in Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo" (PMLA, 122.2[2007]-483-501), which affiliates the German director's celebrated film with a constellation of colonialist texts and practices, extending all the way to Warhaftig Historia (1557), the controversial captivity narrative of would-be German conquistador Hans Staden.
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Author:Ascarate, Richard John
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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