Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic
Way back in 1921 young Fritz Lang apparently concocted the screenplay for this bit of exotic adventure, but wasn’t trusted to direct it; studio politics intervened, then an inconvenient Second World War. Cut to the late 50s: émigré Lang has fallen from favour in Hollywood; his last film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), was a while back, and the offers aren’t exactly rolling in, when he gets a call from German producer Artur Brauner who tells him his old script has resurfaced, and there’s only one man they want in the director’s chair….
The Tiger of Eschnapur (Der Tiger von Eschnapur) and The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal), the two halves of what became known as Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic are some of his last work, his penultimate film, made when he was approaching 70 and given more freedom and money than Hollywood usually offers its ageing masters. It was a lavish production, given extensive location shooting, an international cast, elaborate sets, crowd scenes and more elephants and tigers than you could shake a stick at. The result is one of the most deliriously unreal slices of cinema that it’s ever been my pleasure to witness.
The story is pure hokum. A German architect (Paul Hubschmid) is hired by the maharajah of Eschnapur (Walter Reyer) to construct a temple on his palace grounds. Unfortunately he promptly falls for dancer Seetha (the, frankly, smoking hot Debra Paget), on whom the maharajah has matrimonial designs, and the two lovers have to flee for their lives. Whereupon the architect’s unknowing sister (Sabine Bethmann) and partner arrive in Eschnapur, and are commissioned to construct a tomb for living inhabitants, full of traps and hazards, while in the wings, revolution is brewing amongst the palace courtiers…
All of this is the framework on which to hang lots of proto-Indiana Jones business: there are traps and escapes and close calls, flaming torches and carved stone. Fate and the ability to avoid it is continually questioned, whether our lives are our own, or in the hands of unseen forces. But it’s primarily a visual experience; nearly every frame looks like the cover to a pulp novel, all coloured back lighting and sweaty muscle. Hubschmid would have made a fine Doc Savage, Paget is a Frank Frazetta dream. India is used as a fount of exotic imagery, of jungle tiger attacks, rope tricks, coloured silk and glowering statues. It’s like a lurid and brutal children’s film, one that can accommodate Seetha’s sinuous, near-naked dance routines and a nightmarish attack by some Romero zombie-like lepers.
As the leper sequences illustrate, this is all undoubtedly loaded with cultural insensitivity and ideological dodginess. Colonial attitudes are present, if not emphasised. All the key Indian roles are played by ‘browned up’ Europeans and Americans, and the whole 203 minutes have no time for the political and social realities of life in the subcontinent. This is an India of the mind, dreamed up for silent film in 1921, and as accurate as Rousseau’s jungle canvasses. It would take an especially humourless viewer to watch this without a grin forming on their face at all the sumptuous fakery. I would say that the first half writes a cheque that the second half doesn’t quite pay out on, with more studio-bound scenes of verbal to and fro to little effect, but I’m quibbling. This is vivid, brilliant nonsense. ‘India is like an intoxicating drink,’ indeed.
The Eureka Masters of Cinema’s two-disc edition has fine-looking transfers of both films plus a host of extras, trailers, commentaries, a documentary, on-set footage and more.