Type search terms and hit "Enter"

Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic

by Glenn Erickson Dec 03, 2019

At the end of his career, Fritz Lang returned to Germany and a producer who gave him a big budget to remake a silent classic in color, with an international cast and locations in remote India, including a palace never seen in a movie before. The two-movie, 200-minute epic was chopped in half for America and dubbed in English. Seen in its full Eastmancolor glory, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb form an old-fashioned storybook tale, with its special charm lying in our knowledge of Fritz Lang’s fixation on fatalism and intricate patterns of betrayal and intrigue. Plus the films contain the erotic highlight of the decade, the spectacle of star Debra Paget’s scorching ‘temple dances’ before an all-male audience of admirers.


Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic
The Tiger of Eschnapur
and The Indian Tomb
Blu-ray
Film Movement Classics
1959 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 203 min. / Street Date December 10, 2019 / available at Film Movement / 39.95
Starring: Debra Paget, Paul Hubschmid, Walther Reyer, Claus Holm, Sabine Bethmann, Luciana Paluzzi, René Deltgen, Valéry Inkijinoff, Jochen Blume.
Cinematography: Richard Angst
Film Editor: Walter Wischniewsky
Original Music: Michel Michelet
Written by Werner Jörg Lüddecke, from the original screenplay by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, from her novel.
Produced by Artur Brauner
Directed by
Fritz Lang

 

Fritz Lang may be the director whose work best fits the Auteur Theory: his themes are so consistent that one movie seems to dovetail into the next. Westerns, crime pix and massive epics continually come back to the question of fate vs. free will. His penultimate feature film is no different, even if it takes place in an India where the Indians all speak German. The hero explores subterranean passages with doorways that lead him deeper into a trap, as in Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. Men gather in a formal setting to watch an erotic ‘temple dance,’ as in Metropolis as well. Lovers rest by a pond to talk about the impossibility of their future together, a scene that mirrors Lang’s 1930 You Only Live Once. Lang was first schooled as an architect, a profession that informs his architect hero, who studies the floor plan of a vast palace, and its crumbling foundations. Dynamited catacombs trap combatants in caves filling with river water, a situation that reminds us of Metropolis, but also one of the death traps of the evil Dr. Mabuse. The ‘quoted’ scenes don’t copy Lang’s earlier work, but extend its richness.

←  In 1960, American-International released Journey to the Lost City, a 95-minute movie that made no major impact in a summer of filmic delights like The Time Machine. Fifteen years later I discovered that the garbled feature had been cut down from two German movies. They were intended to be serialized, one shown a few weeks after the other. The only movie I’ve ever heard of being shown like that here was the Russian War and Peace. In 1968 we watched it two weekends in a row, and barely understood any of it.

The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb form a pleasing, nostalgic adventure story with great appeal to followers of Fritz Lang. I found myself cheering at one point, shocked at another, and admiring the beauty of its construction throughout. The German films gave Lang’s directing career a kind of closure: his first two major successes were Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, and a silent Tiger and Tomb that he co-wrote but could not direct because a more established filmmaker took them away from him. After his American career burned out, Lang returned to Germany for these color remakes and a final Mabuse masterpiece, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. It seemed fated that all three would remain virtually unseeable in the United States. The Mabuse film found no release here until 1966.


 

The Tiger of Eschnapur
Released January 22, 1959 / 101 min. / Der Tiger von Eschnapur

Welcome to the exotic Indian district of Eschnapur, where the word of a single ruler is law. German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) travels there to build schools and hospitals for Chandra (Walter Reyer), the district’s all-powerful Maharaja. Along the way he falls in love with an enchanting temple dancer, Seetha (Debra Paget), not knowing that Chandra has summoned her to Eschnapur with the intention of making her his new Maharani. But Seetha and Berger become pawns in a plan by Chandra’s brother Prince Ramigani (René Deltgen) to seize the throne. Their innocent romance is misinterpreted as betrayal, and they must flee for their lives into the desert, with a small army in pursuit.

The Tiger of Eschnapur first strikes one as being breathtakingly exotic, and then agreeably juvenile. The dashing Harald Berger bops two troublesome Gurkha soldiers together like sticks of wood, and charms the beautiful Seetha with schoolboy manners and other pure-of-heart gestures. The action is hearty and direct, and realism is a secondary concern. Scenes shot in India with real tigers, are matched with amusingly artificial actors in tiger costumes.

 

The story to unfolds at a leisurely pace. The interest is in how it is told, rather than simply piling incident upon incident. The romantic, almost poetic tone is somewhere between The Thief of Bagdad and The Wind and the Lion, minus massive battle scenes. Nothing outright fantastic occurs, but every scene has the feel of its exotic, alien locations. In 1959 there were places on the globe where absolute rule still existed.

The acting is direct and uncomplicated. Top-billed Debra Paget is excellent here, as she rarely was in American films. Her Seetha has a dual heritage — her father was an Irishman named Joe. She performs a surprisingly adult exotic dance before an enormous female idol, writhing over and straddling its giant blue hand. She’s magnificent: so graceful and talented that the dance never seems in bad taste. It’s the highlight of the show. The dance got a rise out of English critic Raymond Durgnat, who lustfully put pen in hand to describe Debra Paget’s ‘torpedo thighs.’ Yep, quite an exhibition and a reminder that these films aren’t as juvenile as first thought.

 

Seetha falls in love singing a song she remembers from childhood, which Berger recognizes as an Irish tune. Strangely enough, the melody line of this main theme is very close to that of the ‘Chuckaluck’ song from Fritz Lang’s 1952 Marlene Dietrich western Rancho Notorious — did the director dictate the melody himself?  Paul Hubschmid is a handsome, cultured architect hero. Hubschmid could have been a good James Bond, had his accent been different. If he looks familiar, six years earlier he was the hero of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms using the name Paul Christian.

Top-billed Debra Paget is the film’s coveted American star — did she hope she was going to make film history in Germany, like Louise Brooks of 30 years previous?   Most of the main players are German. Walther Reyer’s Chandra carries an air of aggressive aristocracy. The other ‘Indian’ characters are orchestrated for looks and costumes, to stick in our memory. Valéry Inkijinoff plays a bare-chested priest; classic film fans know him from his famous role as a Mongol in Pudovkin’s silent Storm Over Asia (1928). Debra Paget’s meek maid is Italiana Luciana Paluzzi, who later thrilled us as Fiona Volpe, one of the better James Bond femme fatales, in Thunderball.

It’s amusing to hear this entire epic enacted in German, with all of the Indian characters talking about grabmals (tombs), spinnen (spiders) and blumen (flowers). It reminds us that Americans have no problem accepting everyone in the world speaking perfect English. It also reminds us that the story, conceived at before the 1920s, is a prime example of the fad of ‘orientalism.’ The story has little to do with India, except as an exotic travelogue location for the European hero. The court intrigues reinforce old stereotypes about Eastern mystics, cruel rulers and treacherous underlings. The only truly loyal Indian in the movie is an old soldier, General Dagh (Guido Celano). Even Berger’s friend Asagara (Jochen Blume) is disloyal to his (admittedly harsh and unforgiving) master, Chandra. German movies don’t seem affected by the repressive idea of mixed-race romance, as nothing seems to bar Berger’s future with Seetha. But we’re reminded that she’s half Indian and half Irish. In American films of the 1950s, Polynesian, Native-American and Eurasian heroines were still routinely dying in the last reel, to avoid conflict with our awful Production Code. Debra Paget played that part twice!

The German writers include sequences in a vast dungeon where Chandra has imprisoned a horde of lepers. It’s the only hint of class oppression, as the streets of Eschnapur are all clean and the people well-fed — no untouchables bow and toady for scraps of food. Harald, and then his sister Irene, find themselves locked in the pit, with a mob of wretched lepers that slowly approach, like zombies. Mention is made that Harald came to Eschnapur to build a hospital, etcetera, but we never hear if conditions improve for the afflicted cave-dwellers. This is of course another throwback to an older set of values; the lepers are present only to provide creepy scenes of jeopardy. Don’t let one of them touch you!

 

Aspiring architect Fritz Lang works with a large budget, in settings more elaborate than his American movies. This is a designed film from stem to stern. There are huge sets of fascinating complexity, beautifully lit. The empty palace spaces sometimes remind us of Lang’s later American career, where from The Big Heat on, the decor became increasingly spare. His last U.S. film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, takes place exclusively in generic sets — he seemed only interested in the tension between his characters and his camera. Here in the Indian films, the sets are very detailed, yet clean and uncluttered.

Part of the feeling of emptiness in some of the palace rooms and spaces can be explained by a disc transfer decision, which I’ll address in my remarks below.

Lang plays his action set-pieces wide. The camera moves, but not much; the feeling imparted is that Lang purposely wanted this adventure to be old-fashioned, a series of tableaux something like a silent movie. It’s a little like Georges Franju’s Judex, a nostalgic adventure imbued with an even greater sense of storybook wonder. The pulp adventure ethos is fully expressed when the dauntless Harald Berger must take to the catacombs wearing a snazzy white dinner jacket. We expect him to meet Mandrake the Magician or Chandu the Magician in one of the subterranean tunnels, walking the opposite way.


 

The Indian Tomb
Released March 5, 1959 / 102 min. / Das indische Grabmal

Like an old-fashioned serial, Part Two of the Indian Diptych picks up right where Part One left off, with a re-cap of events.

Harald Berger and Seetha manage to elude Chandra’s soldiers until Seetha’s faith in her gods results in her capture and his apparent death. When Chandra lies about Berger’s whereabouts, Berger’s sister Irene (Sabine Bethmann) and her husband & Berger’s partner Dr. Rhode (Claus Holm) discover they’re in the hands of a madman. Chandra entreats Rhode to build a tomb, in which the Maharaja expects to bury Seetha alive on the night of her wedding. Manipulating Chandra’s desire for Seetha to usurp the throne, Ramigani tells her that Berger is alive, but that he’ll be killed if she doesn’t go through with the wedding ceremony.

The Tiger of Eschnapur concludes with a cliffhanger and title cards exhorting the audience to return for more thrills. The Indian Tomb continues the saga by upping the stakes, bringing Chandra’s fury to a boil and developing two more German characters. The spirited Irene tries to fathom Chandra’s inscrutable hatred, while probing the mystery of her missing brother and the imprisoned temple dancer. Along the way Seetha performs another knockout exotic dance, in an even more revealing costume. There’s another encounter with the horde of lepers locked away in the catacombs, and a full-scale palace revolt.

 

Just as in Lang’s 1924 Die Nibelungen, the nominal hero is out of action for the better part of this second installment, while the palace is rocked by intrigues and deceptions. Ramigani’s lies inflame Chandra’s hatred, in hope of leading him into a trap. Seetha’s cooperation is coerced by a combination of promises and threats. Harald’s partner and sister have been told that Seetha is scheduled for murder on her wedding night, so they’re packing the foundation of the palace with explosives!

The storytelling and design are all of a piece. An episode with a spider’s web informs a conflict between Harald and Seetha. She uses their only provisions as a gift for her god, and tries to convince Harald into accepting that her god sent a spider to save them. Although they are captured anyway, Harald does not dismiss Seetha’s faith. Character is fate, as fortunes take a familiar storybook path. The final act is a cleansing slaughter, but the main villain proves to be a man of basic integrity, who recognizes that he lost his way. As with the rest of Lang’s work, power and sex inspire no end of misadventure. It’s a lightweight but satisfying story.

 

Correspondent Christian Raupach confirmed my suspicions about the spectacular Indian location seen in Lang’s Indian Epic:

“… Just wanted to let you know that the floating palace in the film is indeed the same one used in Octopussy. Fritz Lang actually lived in India for many years, and picked up Indian philosophy and customs. This was the first time that any crew was ever allowed to film on the fabled floating palace. Lang had complete cooperation from the Majaraja of Udaipur, and was given total access to many locations that were barred to filmmakers – especially Western film crews. Thought you might find it interesting.”

Mr. Raupach mentioned seeing the film on German television; I’m told that The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb were for many years televised every holiday season, just like White Christmas was here. I wonder if the popular Sissi films were given the same ‘family classic’ treatment on West German television.


 

Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray of Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic presents The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb on separate discs, in spectacular HD transfers. Unlike many German pictures, Eastmancolor served as the camera negative. An extensive Indian shoot wanders in the gardens and across the rooftops of the Udaipur Palace in Rajasthan; a separate credit card thanks the Maharaja who gave permission for the shoot. Lang shot most of the interiors in lavish sets built at Artur Brauner’s CCC studio back in Berlin, reviving in part the grandiosity of the silent days, when the director was the King of Cinema.

The new transfer betters the 2001 DVD from Fantoma, with HD adding a lot to our appreciation — Seetha’s costumes, the golden birdcage in her chambers, the pomp and circumstance of a procession of elephants and soldiers. But the new transfer is once again at a full-frame 1:37. The disc box states that the AR is original, when a widescreen 1:66 is almost certainly correct. The main titles of both features form horizontal text blocks that hover slightly high in the frame: a piece of the top of the frame, and a much larger slice off the bottom, were meant to be masked away. In many shots we’re looking at an expanse of floor that takes up a third of the image. Yes, a 1:66 crop would affect medium shots in Debra Paget’s erotic dances, but even in those scenes, wide shots leave a hefty piece of empty floor that un-balances the image.

 

The result is that scenes are composed too tall. Supposedly cramped places like the catacombs and peasants’ huts seem much more spacious. Viewers with the players that blow up and reposition the image will be able to fix this if they wish. The movie is of course quite beautiful when viewed flat, too.

The release has two good video extras. A long-form docu The Indian Epic seems to have been made for German television; Artur Brauner talks about the difficulty of making the film, boasts about his international cast and offers some behind-the-scenes footage where we can see that Fritz Lang continuing to take a very hands-on approach to direction. (I remember a good still from Lotte Eisner’s book, taken on the lawn outside the studio, with Lang demonstrating how Hubschmid should choke a man to death using the chains manacled to his ankles.)

Even better is an amusing new (2016) featurette- essay from Mark Rappaport called Debra Paget, for Example. Using stills and abundant film clips (most in terrific quality), Rappaport examines the life of a starlet. His amusing commentary begins with the statement, ‘why is the 14 year-old Paget performing serious adult kissing scenes in her first movies?  The answer of course is that Paget was clearly show-biz savvy and aware of her fabulous body from an early age. Rappaport nicely explains how the singing & dancing Paget was given only a few chances to demonstrate her musical skills, and instead played Indians, and a south seas maiden that jumps into a volcano. Were there no limits on the clips he could use? Paget is compared to Marilyn Monroe, a favored starlet at the same studio, and her dancing in the Indian movies (described as ‘Las Vegas style’) is compared to the show-biz glamour of Jane Russell. Rappaport shows how interchangeable actresses were when forced into the same cookie-cutter roles — he even dissolves between near-identical images of Paget and Jean Peters. If I’ve added correctly, Paget is now 86. We hear her thoughts (?) as she realizes that she’ll forever be an erotic touchstone for pubescent boys. And what’s wrong with that?  The dances in The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are an education … just keep telling yourself, ‘torpedo thighs.’

 

Capping the two-disc set is a new audio commentary by David Kalat, whose excellent work has informed discs of other pictures by Fritz Lang; he’s also to be thanked for producing the highly-collectable All-Day DVD of The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. Now there’s a worthy candidate for a Blu-ray upgrade.

Kalat begins with the uphill chore of defending The Indian Films against the PC argument that it’s racist adventurism, with Europeans in brown-face and little if any authentic Indian culture in sight. David does the job without once exclaiming, “Well, Duh!” Getting the benefit from Kalat’s extensive knowledge and research, we hear the story of Fritz Lang’s involvement with the 1919 production, and why his waning American career led him to accept Artur Brauner’s pitch for a return to Berlin and moviemaking just like the good old days. I listened to Kalat’s worthy track over three sessions, and I’m glad he’s still in action.

A colorful illustrated 20-page insert booklet contains an essay by Tom Gunning, analyzing The Indian Films as an extension of Fritz Lang’s earlier work, as opposed to an end-of-career detour.

American-International’s cutdown of the two films, entitled Journey to the Lost City, garnered lackluster trade reviews, with no mention of the original German diptych. One critic called Lang’s direction ‘pedestrian,’ and two reviews criticized the quality of the color in the ‘Colorscope’ prints. Journey to the Lost City reportedly drops the second Debra Paget dance with the more extreme costume. It bills Paul Hubschmid as Paul Christian again, just as he had been in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The sneaky A.I.P. executives apparently stole shots from the ‘cave of lepers’ sequence to jazz up Edgar G. Ulmer’s action-challenged sci-fi film, 1960’s Beyond the Time Barrier. Shameless!

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Excellent with Aspect Ratio quibble
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by film historian David Kalat; The Indian Epic TV documentary; Debra Paget, For Example video essay by Mark Rappaport; color insert booklet with essay by Tom Gunning.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 30, 2019
(6147lang)CINESAVANT

Visit CineSavant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail:
cinesavant@gmail.com

Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson

Here’s Sam Hamm on Journey to the Lost City:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.