The Closing of Fate’s Circle: Fritz Lang’s “Indian Epic” on Notebook

Often relegated to a cursory mention as one of the great filmmaker’s late-career trifles, Fritz Lang’s “Indian Epic”—comprising The Tiger of Eschnapur (Der Tiger von Eschnapur) and The Indian Tomb (Das Indische Grabmal), both from 1959—is more like a charming throwback to his earliest work than it is an indication of any waning productivity. Its supporting roots stretch from the early 1920s, when Lang and his soon-to-be-wife Thea von Harbou began drafting an adaptation of her 1918 novel, “The Indian Tomb.” Owing in part to Lang’s relative inexperience, though, the project was turned over to Joe May, who directed the subsequent two-part feature in 1921, which would itself be remade by Richard Eichberg in 1938. Lang bristled at the creative theft (as he saw it anyway) and went packing to Ufa, promptly flourishing as one of the preeminent filmmakers in the world. Later, after more than two decades in Hollywood, where his efforts were oftentimes met with erratic starts and stops and marred by creative peaks and valleys, even as his inspired drive remained as tenacious as ever, Lang returned to Germany in the late 1950s. There, at the invitation of producer Artur Brauner, of CCC Filmkunst, Lang returned to the pilfered property of “The Indian Tomb” (von Harbou had by this time passed away, in 1954, under a cloud of Nazi involvement), and the resulting films materialized as something between the Weimar-era epics of old, like Lang’s own diptych The Spiders (1919/20), and more recent Saturday matinee serials.

Taken together, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb form an agreeably simplistic tale of romance, intrigue, and vibrantly staged action, the thrust of which is fundamentally underway after the Indian Maharaja, Chandra (Walter Reyer), enlists German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) to develop sophisticated schools and hospitals in the otherwise disadvantaged province. Rewarding and amicable to start, their relationship sours following the arrival of another guest, temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget), who catches the amorous eye of both men. Unbeknownst to Chandra, his reign is simultaneously threatened by Prince Ramigani (René Deltgen), who harbors a grudge against the ruler for being passed over in the succession of power and stokes the covert fires of rebellion. Acting on the perils of their illicit love, and the increasing animosity raging from the slighted Chandra, Berger and Seetha embark on a treacherous flight from the Maharaja’s compound, collapsing in the scorching desert, hands clasped in the first part’s cliffhanger finale. As the second half begins, following a recap of prior events, Berger’s sister, Irene (Sabine Bethmann), recently arrived at the palace with her husband and Berger’s partner, Dr. Walter Rhode (Claus Holm), begins to rightly suspect foul play and questions the mysterious disappearance of her brother, who has, like Seetha, been captured by the vindictive Maharaja. 

The tiger of the first film’s title appears early on, seemingly as the picture’s most prominent threat, a demonic animal with a “murderous spirit,” plaguing the vicinity and prompting the locals to seek shelter. But while that preliminary menace is fleeting, the suggestion of its pervasive presence is symbolically transferred to the maneuverings of romantic-political scheming, inducing a similar sense of lurking danger, surrounding and swaying most all in the film; an air of mystery, murder, and magic permeates the story at every turn. The dominant conflict in the Indian epic, however, concerns the pronounced clash between relocated foreigners and their accompanying Western ways and the Eastern region’s sacred rituals of religion and ancient custom. Berger, a Lang stand-in of sorts (the character studied architecture in Vienna and Paris), is the obvious embodiment of this opposition, but even Seetha, with her European ancestry, ostensibly runs counter to the convention. Although her dancing exemplifies the form typically associated with Indian performance, her seductive movements in the large sculptured hand of a nude goddess clearly arouse a forbidden fascination, one amplified in an even more provocative, more dangerous “snake dance” later in the film, during which Paget wears little more than some strategically placed jewelry. 

Written by Lang and Werner Jörg Lüddecke, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb move along at their own curious rhythm, a tonal balancing act of cartoonish dramatics and behavioral severity. Just as perceptive, clever details (the pencil marks that should pepper Berger’s supposedly bloodied shirt) are contrasted with inclusions of utter ridiculousness (the auspicious intervention of a rapidly web-weaving spider), the potentially thoughtful hints of racial inequity and complexity are usurped by needless exposition and a predictable reserve of violent retribution. Chandra’s redemptive conclusion is a nice touch, as are the everyday heroics of affable Irene and Walter, but like its occasionally choppy editing and its lackluster special effects, the acting is a mixed bag of superficial qualities: the blatant sexualization of Colorado-born Paget, the exaggerated strength and stoic posturing of Hubschmid, the overly animated expressions of vengeful Reyer. Still, although accepting the “deliberately childlike and somewhat kitschy innocence” of these characters “may require a certain tolerance and trust on the part of the viewer,” as Jonathan Rosenbaum has written, “this luscious celebration and exploration of Lang’s favorite tropes and themes fully repay the effort.” 

Indian Epic

Along those lines, then, unequivocally admirable by comparison, the perilous scenario of these two Lang films, with their pleasantly outlandish exotic trappings, combine with the cultural dichotomies to coalesce into a fantastically rendered production, boasting the sort of painstaking artificiality that distinguished much of the director’s finest work, particularly his prior German features. Augmented by the equally abetting talents of Helmut Nentwig and Willy Schatz (art direction), Günter Brosda and Claudia Hahne-Herberg (costumes), and Richard Angst (cinematography), the décor of The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb befit Lang’s favoring of sheer spectacle over any semblance of reality. The attention to fabricated detail, in a multiplicity of colors, textures, and layers, is such that the exact setting and time period is largely irrelevant, for the India of Lang’s epic is an imagined, fanciful version of the country. Exhibiting the same sense of technical awe that inspired so marvelously in Die Nibelungen (1924), his Mabuse films, and Metropolis (1927)—with which the Indian epic shares a disparity between underground dwellings for less fortunate individuals, in this case lepers, and the levitated realm of the chosen few—Lang lavishes these films with iconic figures, opulent, intricate sets, and a sweeping grandiosity, applied to both scenic fulfillment and the rites of ceremonial process. Drawing due comparisons to Jean Renoir’s The River (1951), Roberto Rossellini’s India: Matri Bhumi (1959), and Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), the Indian epic mingles miscellaneous characteristics of each film, from the vast naturalism of its rural locales (benefiting from some striking on-location footage) to the exotic, ornamental architecture (testifying to Lang’s penchant for in-studio inventiveness). “Sumptuous films,” according to Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, the Indian epic “showed the director luxuriating as never before in his romantic imagination.”  

Nearing age 70 at the time, Lang was afforded with these features more money and freedom than he had experienced in America. Unfortunately, the positives of his combined penultimate release more or less stopped there (another return to earlier material, another Mabuse film, was to be Lang’s final film). At least for contemporary German critics, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb were bland disappointments, and when the films’ rights were obtained for American distribution, the two movies were inexplicably merged and shortened into one 94-minute travesty. But all was not lost. Complete versions of the two movies have endured, and their existence has led many to praise the unappreciated merits of these entertaining, habitually quirky adventures. “Lang’s control of colour photography,” for example, as Tom Gunning observes, “represents a truly modern aspect of film-making. The non-realistic, semi-abstract plot and characters would inspire the most advanced filmmakers of the 60s, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Marie Straub.” Furthermore, Lang conveys a familiar atmospheric tension, fostered by the palpable impression of environmental intensity and omnipresent oppression. “The film not only relates strongly to Lang’s silent epics,” writes Gunning, “but develops the stylistic and thematic preoccupations of his whole career.”A partial checklist verifies as much: lovers on the run; persecution and the ensuing man hunt; suspicion; one of “Lang’s double-women” (Seetha, according to McGilligan); threats from domineering overseers; feats of bravery; entrapment; burgeoning modernism; the perceived threat of an out of place “other”; surveillance and associative paranoia; and a beguiling mysticism.

The Indian epic is, as Gunning continues, “very much an auteur film, a film whose significance and value becomes evident when placed in the context of the director’s entire career. …” Lang himself was more than aware of such artistic parallels, aptly reflecting later in life that these two films—at once echoing his preceding work and coming near the end of his legendary career—formed something “like a circle that was beginning to close—a kind of fate.” Though they may not have been what was expected from the aging master, and today they pale in comparison to his more acclaimed titles, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb bear several sufficient, quintessentially “Langian” qualities, more than enough to distinguish the entire saga as an amusing submission warranting keen reconsideration.

Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are playing September 27 – October 3, 2019 at Film Forum in New York.

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