'Living Buddhas' is officially 'lost' (who gets to make these decisions, anyway?), but about five and one-half minutes of footage survive in the possession of film collector Henry Nicholella, to whom my thanks for arranging their recent transmission on German television. The surviving fragments (on which this review is based) are non-consecutive, thus making a weird story seem even more confusing. Yet these few minutes contain some fascinating visual compositions which make me want to track down any more of this movie that might possibly exist.
An expedition of European scientists to a Tibetan lamasery is led by Professor Campbel (who spells his name with only one 'L', possibly because he's searching for the one-L lama). The rules for such movie expeditions require that he bring along his nubile young daughter; apparently lacking a daughter, he brings along his nubile young wife instead. He crosses paths with the High Lama (Paul Wegener) who is in the middle of conducting some hideous insidious invidious rituals which require the sacrifice of a nubile young female. Shall we say that complications ensue?
As depicted here (in the surviving footage and some intertitles), Wegener's High Lama and his acolytes are endowed with genuine supernatural powers. (In the early twentieth century, there seemed to be a western vogue for attributing all sorts of supernatural abilities to Tibetan priests; thus we have James Hilton's 'Lost Horizon' and several American comic-book superheroes who got their powers in Tibet. There's also Tintin's levitating lama. And did someone mention 'The Champions'?) In the footage seen here, I was impressed by a sequence in which one of the lamas (not Wegener) sends his soul out of his own body. While he meditates in a semi-lotus position, a double exposure of the same actor ascends through his head (in Buddhism, the most sacred portion of the body) and passes upwards into a levitating halo. The effect is reversed when the lama's spirit returns.
Elsewhere, we see a tight close-up of Wegener's face as he bends forward, extending his broad forehead towards the camera. A separate image is superimposed on his forehead, showing the Campbel expedition while the High Lama spies on them via the psychic faculty of 'remote vision'.
I was extremely impressed by another shot of a steamship at sea, in an empty ocean with no visible land. Suddenly, from behind the horizon, a gigantic image of Wegener's Lama rears up and surveys the ship. Genuinely eerie, this ... and made all the more effective because of Wegener's sardonic expression and facial structure. Wegener had very prominent cheekbones, which made him well-suited to playing 'alien' characters from exotic foreign climes. I've seen colour film footage of Wegener from the mid-1930s; he had very bright green eyes, which photographed very well in the nitrate film stock of the 1920s: the blue in Wegener's pupils drops out, making his eyes seem yellow and cat-like even in monochrome stock. Wegener was a very stolid actor, of limited expression (making him just right to play the Golem) but with that face he didn't need a wide range of emotions.
Also seen all too briefly in these fragments is the ethereal Asta Nielsen, one of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear in films. There are also some impressive exterior shots of crowd scenes in Chinoiserie sets. The German actors in Chinese make-up look more authentic than one might expect, not remotely like the usual 'Mister Wu, how do you do?' Sellotape stereotype.
I very seldom give ratings to films which I've seen only in incomplete versions ... but, based on the very tantalising glimpses which I've seen here, 'Living Buddhas' is a brilliant film which deserves to be resurrected in its entirety. I'll cautiously rate it 8 out of 10.
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