Film

Oh, That Tiger!: Fritz Lang's Indian Epics

Debra Paget as Seetha the Sheeva dancer in The Tiger of Eschnapur (Der Tiger von Eschnapur) (1959) (courtesy of Film Movement)

Fritz Lang's The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are hothouse flowers of cinema with gyrating dancers, man-eating tigers, pagan magic, groaning lepers, and mythic moments. Has Lang ever come up with more desperate, mad, or heroic symbols of futile struggle?

Fritz Lang's Indian Epic [The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb'
Fritz Lang

Film Movement Classics

10 December 2019

Other

O delirium! O fever dream! Film Movement Classics hits us between the ocular orbs with a Blu-ray 4K restoration of Fritz Lang's two fabulous epics that were largely overlooked and maligned until the digital era.

In Germany's silent film days, Lang was among those who established that industry's prowess in two-part epics. According to Lang, he'd been slated to direct one example, The Indian Tomb (1921), as scripted by Thea von Harbou from her novel with Lang's input, when producer Joe May took over directing the project.

By 1933, Lang had married von Harbou, developed a major career with her, and then divorced and left her behind when he fled the Third Reich, where she continued to work in apparent contentment. Lang's Hollywood career included anti-Nazi propaganda like Man Hunt (1941) and Hangmen Also Die (1943).

By the time von Harbou died in 1954, Lang's career was widely if unfairly seen as in decline. He would return to Germany at the invitation of producer Artur Brauner, who wanted to remake some of Lang's silent classics, with the result that Lang finally directed the project that had been taken away from him.

Dancers by hsvbooth (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The Indian diptych known as The Tiger of Eschnapur (Der Tiger von Eschnapur) and The Indian Tomb (Das Indisches Grabmal), an epic running over three hours, proved a big hit in Germany, and Cahiers du Cinéma even named it in the year's top 10. Alas, what American audiences saw was AIP's dubbed 90-minute butchery known as Journey to the Lost City, which -- surprise -- did poorly and got trashed. Therefore, the picture had no high reputation in the century when I grew up, and it was pretty much impossible to find.

In 2001, David Kalat's Fantoma Films unleashed a restored DVD with Kalat's well-informed commentary (retained on this Blu-ray). What was then a revelation for many of us may be moreso for those who see the eye-popping color work in 4K, for just about every shot counts as gorgeous eye candy, thanks to the magical lighting of photographer Richard Angst.

For reasons probably having to do with India's "exotic" reputation to Westerners, Europeans who made movies about the place, whether shot on location, like Jean Renoir's The River (1951), or in studio like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947), pulled out all stops color-wise. Lang's film has location exteriors and studio interiors, equally dazzling and seemingly artificial -- even the true locations!

We should note in passing that India's commercial cinema contributes to the country's own self-mythologizing artifice, for while Lang was filming, the Bollywood industry was lavishing its biggest budget to date on its hugest blockbuster, K. Asif's monumental Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Audiences lapped it up. While based on a historical legend and played by actual Indians, it's just as artificial and romantic and elevated as any purveyor of exotica could wish, and it would make an excellent double-feature with Lang's film if you've got all day. It even adopts a similarly stately manner.

Walther Reyer as Maharadjaj Chandra and Debra Paget as Seetha the Sheeva dancer in The Tiger of Eschnapur (courtesy of Film Movement)

"Stately" is what reviewers say when the less perceptive and patient might say "slow". It's true that audiences expecting an Indiana Jones pace or a Saturday afternoon serial will be stymied by a narrative approach that's more like a picture book of glorious pop-ups. Essentially simple relationships progressively become a complicated, fatalistic mess of political and romantic tensions. But then, that's Fritz Lang.

He always had a strong, simple presentational style, whether the sets were sparse or lavish and whether the photography was shadowy and "expressive" or plain and even. He also tended to film at a physical and emotional remove, reserving close-ups for the most intense and queasy effects, as a kind of outburst. When he hits you with a close-up, you stay hit.

Critics have observed that his style became progressively simpler, yet that central visual simplicity was always there. It's the themes and emotions that become elaborate and outlandish, informed by an almost malign pessimism that doesn't think highly of people or systems in power or the individual's ability to remain uncorrupted.

Although cinema had moved into its lavish widescreen era, Lang and Angst decided to shoot the thing in standard ratio, albeit often with a wide-angle lens that gives everything a slightly distorted, dreamy quality. Shots are staged in depth, with the camera frequently dollying in or pulling back or gliding across in a graceful, restrained, again dreamlike manner, as though we're always entering a storybook's pages. These aesthetic choices underline the sense of fate, that these characters are playthings of the gods or historical forces beyond them, or architectural and scenic forces that overwhelm them, as in so many of Lang's films.

Debra Paget as Seetha and Paul Hubschmid as Harald Berger in The Indian Tomb (1959) (courtesy of Film Movement)

Perhaps it's time to mention the story or something. Well, everything is simple and everything's complicated. Wealthy, Western-educated Prince Chandra (Walter Reyer, all in colorful silk) invites German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid, all big-chinned he-man) to renovate his kingdom with hospitals and schools. Chandra crosses class lines by wooing a lowly dancer named Seetha, who performs modern Hollywoodian gyrations in the sacred underground temple of a goddess with enormous attributes. As for the snake dance, we'll only say it's an unforgettable transcendence of kitsch.

Since Seetha is played by Hollywood import Debra Paget, the dialogue must explain that she had an Irish father and Indian mother, coincidentally like the quicksilver, masquerading, code-switching trickster-hero of Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim (1900). It's not uncommon in Paget's career for the plot to stop while she knocks out some saucy calisthenics. Tickets were practically sold on this basis, and this is one of those pictures. Mark Rapaport's video essay on Paget is a good bonus explaining this, and he also connects the dots with a 1938 German version of the same material, which would have made a dandy bonus by itself.

The audience understands right away that Berger and Seetha are drawn to each other ever since he saved her handmaiden from soldierly harassment by casually knocking some heads together, and that this is a complication in terms of Chandra's feelings and plans for her. But the story turns into less a triangle than a morass because of unlooked-for political complexities, all of which make perfect sense while being endlessly bloody-minded.

Chandra's continually at odds with an assortment of rivals, almost everyone in his court from relatives to priests, who have reasons to resent him for being too this or not enough that. For example, they don't think much of his fancy foreign ideas about hospitals or marrying beneath his station, but it's really all pretext for a snake pit of fragile alliances and cross-purposing self-interests that would take too long to diagram. A crucial schemer is the bald, bare-chested priest played by one of European cinema's all-purpose exotics, Valéry Inkijinoff.

Debra Paget as Seetha in The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal) (1959) (courtesy of Film Movement)

Also in the stew are Seetha's handmaiden (imminent Euro-star Luciana Paluzzi) and mini-dramas with Berger's colleague (Claus Holm) and sister (Sabine Bethmann). Oh yes, there's a man-eating tiger, sometimes played by a kind of puppet. And touches of mystical pagan magic. And a dungeon full of groaning lepers. And a mythic moment when Berger, delirious in a desert, fires his revolver at the sun. Has Lang ever come up with a more desperate, mad or heroic symbol of futile struggle?

Those unconvinced by this film's intoxicating rhythms, vivid images and deepening mystifications on a first go-round will have another chance when listening to Kalat's excellent commentary, in which he admits that few Langians put it in their top 10, but that's no reason to dismiss it). They'll also find pleasure in another commentary examining the making-of, and again when perusing the booklet essay by Tom Gunning, who offers insights into Lang's personal motives and compositional strategies in terms of what Gunning calls "destiny machines".

We'll quote his salutary observation that orientalist fantasies "approached the region as a dark mirror which not only offers the possibility of self-reflection, but also releases fantasies of otherness that challenge stable conceptions of the self. Such films may offer limited insights into contemporary politics, but they provide a glimpse of the inner psychology of Western imperialism and its fascination with the East". In this case, the ongoing "fascination with the East" was von Harbou's, while Lang's fascination was with von Harbou and her legacy in his life.

One of the reasons for Lang and von Harbou's divorce, as Gunning mentions, was her falling in love with an Indian journalist, Ayi Tendulkar. Rapaport claims they couldn't marry because of Nazi racial laws, but Wikipedia's article on him calls him her husband because apparently they did have some form of ceremony. The article also states that his daughter, Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul, has written a book about it, In the Shadow of Freedom: Three Lives in Hitler's Berlin and Gandhi's India (Zubaan, 2014). ("The singular destiny of Ayi Tendulkar", by Dileep Padgaonkar in The Times of India, is an informative review.)

Valéry Inkijinoff as the high priest in The Tiger of Eschnapur (courtesy of Film Movement)

Perhaps this isn't the space to meditate on the Nazis' perverse and paradoxical relations to India, which included appropriation of the swastika (inverted) and the term "Aryan", and the fact that Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis had bizarre obsessions with astrology, superstition, and mysticism, which the abstract concept of "India" symbolized. Lang would have been all too aware of Tendulkar and all the rest of it, and such knowledge may factor into his creation of a film Gunning calls "Lang's culminating investigations of the relation between man and fate".

It's also a voluptuous and heady hothouse flower of cinema and can be enjoyed as such, once you get used to seeing German actors made up like Indians. Neither von Harbou nor the modern participants were trying to denigrate India or even to think about it as a real place, but as a fairy-tale setting far removed from their own reality. Since many Indians of the 1960s were on record as approving Peter Sellers' portrayal of Indian characters, and since they paid close attention to Western films, it would be worth finding out how Lang's film was received there. The topic deserves research, which has more value than assumptions.

If it helps, consider that India's commercial cinema habitually and unthinkingly cast Indians as Europeans, Africans, and other Asians; an illuminating example is V. Shantaram's classic Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946), about a national hero who helped the Chinese against the Japanese, all of whom are played unconvincingly by Indians. Since it can hardly be the case that no Chinese could be found in India, we must conclude that assumptions by artists and audiences in the cultural majority, if they considered the point at all, simply saw everything as "play-acting" and "movies" and "pretend". They aimed at the day's box office, not the second-guessing judgments of future generations, and these historical and social revelations are among the reasons why today's viewers should find these movies intriguing and revealing.

Flush with success, Lang and Brauner promptly made a new movie about Lang's old villainous megalomaniac Dr. Mabuse, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), in which the character is updated for the modern world. This led to a string of German Mabuse films during the '60s, running concurrently with James Bond while, as with the French Fantomas series, exploring a cultural heritage that pre-dated and influenced Bond, and therefore are less rip-offs than independent manifestations of the same zeitgeist.

Lang was still being retro and contemporary at once. A set of those Mabuse items would be the cat's meow, if any Blu-ray producers are listening.

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