Expired Epics

The Dance March 11, 2021  

  

On Fritz Lang's Indian epic

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suspect most reactions to Fritz Lang’s so-called "Indian epic" of 1959 — made up of separately released chapters The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb

are largely contingent on how much a viewer can stomach its brownface-happy Orientalism. It wasn’t uncommon for "classic" 

European and American adventure/fantasy movies of its ilk to indulge in the tendency to generate otherworldliness. Some films, like 1944's Cobra Woman or 1980’s Flash Gordon, preferred an exoticization that remained more nebulous — grab-baggish and simplifying of various material cultural signifiers — than enmeshed in one particular culture.

Pulp adventures of a pre-Indiana Jones kind, Eschnapur and Tomb are in contrast superficially beautiful projections of one culture fashioned by another. They're in line, I think, with similarly rather fetishizing features like The Thief of Baghdad (1940) or The

Debra Paget in 1959's The Indian Tomb.

Jungle Book (1942). (The epic marks the third adaptation of a novel written by Lang’s ex-wife, Thea Von Harbou; its predecessors, released in 1921 and 1938, featured varying textual faithfulness.) To paraphrase Meenakshi Shedde and Vinzenz Hediger's astute analysis of the epic, Lang's 1959 dyad is a work that, like its spiritual predecessors, ultimately tells us far more about the vantage points from which their maps are drawn than the realities of their settings of interest. 

 

One could argue that you could potentially enjoy the epic purely as an aesthetic exercise. Cinematographer Richard Angst lovingly surveys the gorgeous on-location architecture and the gleaming sets and decorations. But the aesthetics of these movies are also overwhelmingly drawn from exoticism and racist perspective. (There's never a moment suggesting the white Westerner is irrational or that the Easterner doesn't need of Western guidance; “one day we will all end up dependent on the foreigners,” one of the Indian characters — a white German actor slathered in brown paint — says.) I couldn't help but be too preoccupied by the archaicness to let loose, especially when the chiefly unengaging storyline is at its most sluggish. 

 

Tiger and Tomb taken together make one some three-and-a-half-hour-long movie. I’m not sure the protractedness is that beneficial. The characters don’t have a fullness by the conclusion — they’re too busy remaining additional blank screens for the saga’s many projections. The films are centrally about a handsome German architect named Berger (Paul Hubschmid) who, after accepting an invitation to the fictional Eschnapur by its despotic maharajah, Chandra (Walter Reyer), to build hospitals and schools, makes the mistake of falling in love with visiting temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget), whom Chandra intends to marry. 

Tiger — the more static of the two movies — is mostly built on Berger and Seetha’s whirlwind romance and our getting acquainted with Chandra's viciousness. (Chandra’s particular brand of villainy is steely — his wickedness is so controlled you rarely see him lose his temper outright.) Tomb chronicles the fallout after Seetha and Berger try to run away from Chandra's palace (they wind up turned around in the desert) and subsequent rescue attempts by Berger’s visiting sister and brother-in-law (Sabine Bethmann and Claus Holm). They’re told Berger has gone missing — then are informed he’s been mauled — following a tiger hunt. In reality, this hapless architect has been iron-clapped in a hard-to-find cell at the end of one of the palace’s several winding hallways.

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here are a couple of genuinely compelling scenes in the epic (everything else is lethargically dramatized); both are confined to The Indian Tomb. One of them watches Paget do a snake-charming dance as part of a ritual.

Although the actress (like most everyone in the ensemble) doesn’t have very much presence elsewhere in the epic — not helped by the fundamental emptiness of the damsel in distress she’s playing — in this particular moment she has a similar dynamism to Rita Hayworth at her '40s-bombshell peak. It's in the context of a song-and-dance sequence, not a dramatic one, where Paget seems most comfortable and is most commanding. (Under contract with Fox for several years beforehand, Paget never managed to fully break 

through in American cinema; she'd make a few more movies after collaborating with Lang before retiring and pivoting to evangelism.)

Coming later in The Indian Tomb, the other key scene finds most of the movie’s leads lost in the hallways of the palace’s lowest strata. As they wander nervously, eagerly trying to find each other, a horde of escaped lepers chases after them. (Chandra, we learn, has imprisoned everyone who has ever had a disease in Eschnapur in a warehouse-sized dungeon and kept them there indefinitely.) This stretch of action marks the one time across both movies where I really felt the stakes. (It makes sense that this be the moment to excite us most: Lang, who for the majority of his career specialized in film-noir thrillers in America, never had any trouble locating and then sometimes-relentlessly 

aggravating suspense.)

These inspired stretches aside, the epic is hard to enjoy — it's more a fascinatingly misguided, frequently pretty-to-look-at artifact than successful bid at escapism. (Even then.) It’s only natural some movies have a timelessness; it's only natural time further compounds others' egregious miscalculations. “For foreigners, India is like an intoxicating drink,” Seetha observes during an early conversation with Berger. “But when they leave India, they return to sober reality. It’s like a magic spell that quickly wears off.” At this moment I didn’t hear Seetha talking, but Lang. I grimaced; the grimace never wore off. C