Fritz Lang's Indian Epic: The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Patrick Friel

Debra Paget as Seetha the temple dancer

Debra Paget as Seetha the temple dancer

Produced by Artur Brauner; directed by Fritz Lang; screenplay by Werner Jörg Lüddecke, from an original story by Thea von Harbou; cinematography by Richard angst; art direction by Willi Schatz and Helmut Nentwig; edited by Walter Wischniewsky; starring Debra Paget, Paul Hubschmid, Walter Reyer, Claus Holm, Sabine Bethmann and René Deltgen. Color, 101 and 102 min., 1959. Released by Eureka’s “Masters of Cinema” series.

Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur (Der Tiger von Eschnapur) and The Indian Tomb (Das Indische Grabmal), a two-part work collectively referred to as the “Indian Epic,” are delimiting films—films that separate the omnivorous, but serious, cinephile generalists from the more circumscribed hardcore auteurists. The first group has a broad, catholic interest in film, finding value in a wide range of directors but not in everything they made; the second group valorizes a smaller subset of directors, but tends to admire all (or at least most) of their work.

As such, the Indian Epic can be grouped with John Ford’s 7 Women, Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Cavern, Howard Hawks’s Red Line 7000, Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades, and Otto Preminger’s Skidoo—films that the auteurists tend to love, but the cinephiles dismiss as examples of good directors gone bad. Like these films, the auteurists count The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb among Lang’s best work; the cinephiles (and most others) dismiss them as a sad decline for one of cinema’s great masters.

Pauline Kael delineates the nonauteurist cinephile position on the Indian Epic in her famous essay “Circles and Squares”:

“How is it that [John] Huston’s early good—almost great—work, must be rejected along with his mediocre recent work, but Fritz Lang, being sanctified as an auteur, has his bad recent work praised along with his good? Employing the more usual norms, if you respect the Fritz Lang who made M and You Only Live Once, if you enjoy the excesses of style and the magnificent absurdities of a film like Metropolis, then it is only good sense to reject the ugly stupidity of Journey to the Lost City [the American release of a condensed version of the Indian Epic]. It is an insult to an artist to praise his bad work along with his good, it indicates that you are incapable of judging either.”

Alternately, the auteurist camp could well adapt Andrew Sarris’s description of filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer’s work as being “of interest only to unthinking audiences or specialists in mise-en-scene,” and easily apply it to Tiger and Tomb. Jonathan Rosenbaum has written that, “To accept their deliberately childlike and somewhat kitschy innocence may require a certain tolerance and trust on the part of the viewer, but this luscious celebration and exploration of Lang’s favorite tropes and themes fully repay the effort.”

The films were in fact popular successes in Germany and their critical champions are generally those who privilege form above all else. This gets to the heart of the difference of estimation of the films’ merits between the two groups. Auteurists see a continuation, even a deepening, of formal investigations found in Lang’s cinema since the 1920s that informs meaning beyond just the narrative. Cinephiles see an often-busy surface “style” coupled with an almost puerile script and performances and plot elements that border on camp.

Previously released by the Fantoma label, but now out of print, the Indian Epic is once again available, on a stunning two-disc set from Eureka’s “Masters of Cinema” series (think a U.K. version of Criterion). Now, those people (like me) who have not had the rare opportunity to see these films on film can at least see them in digital copies that are likely as good as they can get (and they are very good—the transfers are sumptuous). Hopefully, as the films are evaluated and reevaluated, the balance of opinions will tilt more towards masterpieces than misfires.

Like the films cited above, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb were late-career films for Lang. He returned briefly to Germany in the late 1950s (after more than two decades working in Hollywood, with which he had become disillusioned and frustrated) to produce what would be his final three films. An opportunity arose to finally direct the “Indian Epic” that had been taken away from him more than thirty years earlier. Producer Artur Brauner invited Lang to remake the diptych and gave him the artistic control he was missing in Hollywood. In the early 1920s, Lang had been slated to make The Indian Tomb, based on a novel by his soon-to-be-wife Thea von Harbou, and had worked on a script with her, when the project was taken away from him by producer/director Joe May. The original film was released in 1921 as a two-part epic. Lang’s own two-part remake was released in 1959. Lang would direct his final film, The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (which also returns to early work, following on his 1922 film Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler and 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, this time about a disciple of the power-hungry master criminal), the following year.

The plot of the Indian Epic is, admittedly, rather prosaic. A nineteenth-century Indian Maharadjaj, Chandra (Walter Reyer), brings German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) and Indian temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) to his kingdom: Berger (along with his brother-in-law, arriving later), to design and build civilizing social structures (schools, hospitals); Seetha, to become his new wife (unbeknownst to her). Of course, the two meet en route and eventually fall in love, upending the Maharadjaj’s plans and setting in motion his jealous reprisals—which are paralleled by his brother’s attempt to stage a rebellion and depose Chandra.

The Indian Epic is spectacle, adventure, and romance and nearly borders on camp. But one could say the same for Lang’s silent films, if one doesn’t give consideration to their thematic and formal qualities. Throughout his career, Lang took populist forms, generic conventions, and pulp sensibilities and consistently found ways through his style to arrive at larger universal truths and ways of looking at the world than are found in his films’ narratives alone. While for some The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb play only as Saturday-matinee escapism, for others they are rather remarkable films about the clash of cultures, modern Western civilization vs. “outmoded” Eastern tradition/superstition/religion. They raise implicit questions about the very idea of cultural identity and defining an individual identity within a culture.

In Tiger and Tomb, it is not the narrative conflicts between Berger and Chandra, or even Seetha and Chandra, which are of primary interest to Lang. It is the larger world views each represents that provide the overriding conflict in the films: Lang is pitting East against West. Wanting to improve the lives of his subjects, Chandra turns to the West, importing the German architect Berger and his brother-in-law to design and build schools, hospitals, and other symbols of Western progress. For some in Chandra’s palace entourage and for the temple priests, this is seen as a betrayal of tradition and custom. The cool rationality of Berger’s West is contrasted with the hot irrationality of Chandra’s East, as Chandra is consumed by his passions. Chandra cannot escape the forces of his culture, even at the end he seeks redemption within the confines of tradition. He is a man trapped in his world, unable to connect with the modernity that Berger represents.

Nearly all of Lang’s films deal with entrapment of some kind—literal, metaphorical, or both—often on many differing levels, and Tiger and Tomb are no different. Chandra is trapped by tradition, but also by his consuming jealousy; Seetha is trapped by her sense of religious and cultural duty; and Berger by his Western rationalism and professional training. These psychological entrapments are mirrored by an oppressive sense of space in the Indian films. Lang frequently favors extreme high angles and long shots—in the palace, in the temple—which dwarf the characters, almost entombing them within the tradition and culture from which Chandra is initially attempting to break free. When Seetha first moves into the palace, Lang establishes her chamber with a series of shots, each dissolving into the next, which highlights its rich ornamentation and opulence. She feels imprisoned like the bird in the golden cage on her windowsill.

The title of the second film, The Indian Tomb, refers to more than just the massive mausoleum Chandra orders built for Seetha after she betrays him. The entire visual plan of both films suggests entombment at every turn; not only with those high-angle and long shots in large, open spaces, but also in the multitude of confining corridors, caves, and tunnels, and the pit where Berger is held captive after his and Seetha’s unsuccessful attempt at escape from Eschnapur.

Lang’s attention to space, in his shots and in the architecture of Eschnapur, is not surprising. His use of color, though, is, given that his best-known work features stunning black-and-white cinematography. In the Indian Epic the color is intense, pushed to an extreme—almost to the point of garishness. It highlights the exoticism of the Indian locale and gives the films a sense of near-fantasy. This sense of artificiality continues the theme of separation of Eschnapur from Berger’s Europe, and also underscores the kingdom’s separation from the present. Eschnapur is a place past its time, or out-of-time. It is a construct, opulent and grand, but also fragile—threatened by encroaching modernity from without and political turmoil within. It is through the use of color, intentionally and I think unintentionally, that Lang foregrounds this artificiality, in the décor, in the seemingly endless range of colors of the clothing (contrasted sharply with the drab, efficient dress of the Germans), and even in the confoundingly varied shades of orange makeup worn by the German actors playing Indians.

It’s fitting that these films so much about separation and division and competing world views should themselves be objects of divided opinion and critical conflict. Certainly the critical divide on the Indian Epic has narrowed since the films’ release, accruing more in favor of their status as significant works by Lang—or at least as important continuations of his central themes and formal markers—than to Pauline Kael’s view, but only few still consider them among Lang’s greatest works.

This welcome DVD release by Masters of Cinema may well change that, though. In addition to the excellent new transfers of the films (which feature newly translated subtitles for the original German-language version and an optional English-language track), the set also includes a characteristically insightful reprinted essay by film professor Tom Gunning; 8mm footage shot by actress Sabine Bethmann; and original trailers for the films’ French releases. A short 2005 documentary on the film is only of minor interest (mostly for producer Artur Brauner’s interview), but film scholar David Kalat’s wonderfully conversational audio commentary is packed full of information and is great fun to listen to.

Patrick Friel is a film programmer and writer living in Chicago. He is the Director and Programmer for the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival and also runs his own independent screening series, White Light Cinema.

To purchase Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4