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Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1959
Studio: 
Eureka!
Genre: 
Adventure
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.37:1
Directed by: 
Fritz Lang
Cast: 
Debra Paget
Paul Hubschmid
Walther Reyer
Claus Holm
Sabine Bethmann
Movie: 
4
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
4

Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic: it appears that for most German critics in the late-1950s, three hours-worth of such ravishing imagery -- radiant in its exquisitely crafted beauty -- was simply not enough. Listening to critic and Fritz Lang enthusiast David Kalat’s exemplary commentary here (more a book-length audio essay-cum-thesis than just your usual list of potted bios and dryly retold anecdotes), and reading through the materials included with the handsome  booklet that accompanies the Masters of Cinema range’s superb two-disc DVD release of Fritz Lang’s penultimate film(s), soon leaves one in no doubt of the overwhelming critical hostility that greeted the work after it opened in Germany in 1959. But this is an age-old story of critical reception being diametrically opposed to that of public appreciation: Lang’s grand two-part ‘epic’ (and there can be no better word to describe this opulent adventure fantasy) was a massive box office success in Germany and went on to replicate the feat in much of the rest of the world; although not in the USA -- where even glossy romantic spectaculars such as this became problematic when they arrived with a running time that was well in excess of three hours. As Kalat emphasis in his commentary, the Indian films of Fritz Lang (now referred to under the combining moniker The Indian Epic; although they were released in instalments with a gap of several months between each one) were considered – and indeed were! -- a throwback to a bygone age, recalling the super productions of the Weimar era in the Germany of the 1920s, when Lang worked for Ufa under the auspices of Erich Pommer, and made the four-hour romantic crime thriller “Dr Mabuse, der Spieler” (1922) and his futuristic masterpiece “Metropolis” (1927) among others. In this golden age of silent cinema, German audiences went to the movies fully expecting the main feature to come in several instalments and that together they should be of crippling, bum-numbing length!

Not so in 1959. By this period such a production model must have seemed bizarrely old fashioned. Yet this didn’t stop audiences flocking to revel in the two films’ colourful orientalist delights. Instead It was the critics who had the problem: between them, both instalments might have the running time of one of Lang’s expressionistic ‘20s classics, but as far as critical opinion was concerned the Indian films connoted a once important director now reduced to slumming it for the masses, lazily churning out weak escapist potboilers (‘an orgy of trash and kitsch’ fulminated one German critic quoted by Kalat) after having previously helmed such important masterpieces of the cinematic art as “M” (1931) and the numerous dark and fatalistic film noirs which were made after Lang’s emigration to America in 1936. Though the relentless derision reserved for these two Technicolor extravaganzas eventually led Lang to distance himself from them, they, in all their outmoded, two-part escapist-adventure glory, were consciously intended to be exactly the way they are by their famously monocled director. Why Lang was so keen to come back to Germany in order to make these films at all is a story that is expertly told in profound detail by Kalat, and also by Lang himself in the DVD’s booklet, which includes excerpts from interviews with the director (and much else we will mention again later on).

 It all goes back Lang’s earliest days as a young filmmaker in Germany while working on the screenplay for “Das indische Grabmal” (The Indian Tomb) with his writing partner and then-lover Thea von Harbou. The project was infamously ‘stolen’ away from him by producer-writer Joe May and became a huge success for that director in 1921. A furious Lang left May’s production company and went to work at Ufa where he went on to craft some of the German cinema’s all-time classics. Flash forward to 1957, when Lang had now become disillusioned with the Hollywood system which had provided him with a living since his pre-war flight from Germany. Having been offered the opportunity by producer Artur Brauner of CCC Filmkunst to come back to his home country and direct his version of the original Thea von Harbou Indian Tomb screenplay (she’d since passed away without having had any further contact with Lang since her involvement with the Nazi regime), the director jumped at the chance. The post-war colour-drenched adventure was deliberately designed to recall those older lengthy, two-part Weimar era epics. There was no question of Lang having sold out to populism: pulp material and comic books were in his blood; he loved Westerns, crime thrillers and espionage films, and these had always been a part of his oeuvre equally as much as his more acclaimed dark, fatalistic thrillers about the human condition. One only has to think back to “Dr Mabuse” or “Metropolis” to see how Lang habitually took the stuff of pulp fiction and treated it with an undue reverence and seriousness to create his own distinctive brand of art.

In fact, “Kill Bill” makes for quite an apt comparison point with the Indian Epic, for Quentin Tarantino is another filmmaker whose work often confounds ‘serious’ critics’ by using b-movies and pulpy ‘trash’ cinema as its primary source of inspiration, referencing it just as often, and sometimes in tandem with, a critically acknowledged body of cinematic greats. The two films that make up Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic do indeed constitute straightforward populist romance and adventure movie fare. Lavish, gloriously colourful and ornately decorated thanks to Lang’s trademark attention to fine detail, they are films that are built to be gazed at with reverence for their surface beauty, while, at the same time, the characters are unapologetically wafer thin, the love triangle plot hardly calls for its allotted three hours in order to be adequately elucidated, and the studio backdrops and special effects are often as phony looking as any cheap Saturday morning matinée feature.

To criticise the films for that though, would be to miss the point. The function of the plot and the characters as well as the style and tone of the productions are completely in accordance with the genre Lang was working within. The films are pure romantic fantasy, trading in a consciously heightened, ahistorical version of India that seems to hark back to a mythical pre-Raj era, despite all the western characters clearly being rooted in the contemporary 1950s. The films look like a much bigger budgeted version of the kind of formulaic historical adventure shows ITC were once famous for producing in the mid-‘50s: series such as “The Count of Monte Cristo” or “The Sword of Freedom”, which featured locations created in the studio with the aid of painted backgrounds, stock footage and blacked-up character actors standing in for natives. In the ‘60s, Hammer would also successfully (and much more cheaply) work in the same area with films such as “She”. All this is replicated on both Lang’s Indian films – with stock footage of jungle scenes depicting fierce looking Indian tigers intercut with their tamer and docile-looking stunt stand-ins. Even a paw-swiping puppet tiger makes an appearance for a couple of necessary action scenes, one of which sees the German hero fending off one of the creatures with a lighted torch; and, in one famous sequence, a charmingly fake-looking puppet cobra is employed when American starlet Debra Paget is called upon to attempt to save herself from its venomous bite by hypnotising the creature with her sensual performance of a semi-nude erotic dance!

 If further proof were needed of the work’s TV adventure serial origins, the first film, “Der Tiger von Eschnapur” (The Tiger of Eschnapur) ends on a cliff-hanger in which the hero and heroine are left grievously imperilled, and the second, “Das Indische Grabmal” (The Indian Tomb) -- which audiences would have had to wait several months before they could see -- begins with a ‘story so far’ recap of previous events. Despite the films having their home in popular serial drama, the sets of art directors Willi Schatz and Helmut Nentwig were constructed on a much grander scale than anything one would see on any episodic TV series, with vast spaces recreating a warren of underground catacombs beneath the Maharaja’s palace and a huge amphitheatre-like temple, presided over by a monolithic statue of the goddess Shiva, flanked by a gigantic staircase and a vast gallery looking down upon its stage. Such sites instantly conjure the ghostly black-and-white spectacle of Lang’s epic Weimer features from the 1920s. The sumptuous set of the interior of the summer palace is an impressively ornate, gold and jewel encrusted labyrinth of corridors, patterned with intricate and colourful décor that shimmers alluringly on the screen thanks to the work of director of photography Richard Angst. And Lang didn’t shoot the whole thing in the CCC studios in Spandau either, despite there being many scenes throughout the films in which one can spot fake-looking backcloths and the preponderance of outdoor sequences that were clearly created on a soundstage. Lang and the crew travelled to Udaipur in India and shot around the famous floating palace which was later used in the Bond film “Octopussy”; hundreds of extras and thirty elephants were called upon to flesh out the architecturally grandiose exteriors, with their gorgeous island pavilions, terraced courtyards, lush gardens and sparkling fountains.  

All this skilfully wrought extravagance is put in service of a simple plotline that could probably be told in half the time Lang lavishes upon it, but once again, the stately pacing and the film’s sonorous dwelling upon the details of an exquisite imagery that revels in opulence and pageantry, provides the chance to fully luxuriate in the fantastic spectacle and splendour with which the director endeavours to fill the screen at every stage. The story, such as it is, tells of  handsome German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) first seen en route to the Maharaja Chandra’s (Walther Reyer) summer palace in Eschnapur, where he has been assigned by the progressive potentate the task of building schools and hospitals for the sick, as well as renovating the main palace complex. This is not something that meets with approval from the revered priestly Brahmin cast who preside over the local religious practices, nor by certain factions within Chandra’s own court who mistrust the Maharaja’s openness to western ideas.

Meanwhile, Berger falls head-over-heels in love with a court dancer called Seetha (Debra Paget) who is also on her way to Chandra’s palace, having been summoned there by the Maharaja himself in order that she should take part in a prestigious religious ceremony that is to be held in the palace complex’s sacred underground temple. Seetha becomes somewhat enamoured of the westerner, too, especially after he saves her from a much feared man-eating tiger which has been terrorising the neighbourhood for months. At the Palace, Berger is warmly greeted by Chandra after he learns how the foreigner saved the life of the pretty dancer – for it turns out that the Maharaja has designs on Seetha too, and his desires are even more aroused when he sees her intoxicating, sensuous dance for the goddess Shiva in the sacred Temple ceremony. But when it becomes clear to Chandra that Seetha’s affections lie with the German, jealousy and passion take over and Berger and Seetha are forced to flee the palace while Chandra’s men hunt them across the harsh desert. While the lovers are missing, Berger’s partner Walter Rhode (Claus Holm) and his wife (who is also Berger’s sister) Irene (Sabine Bethmann) arrive at the palace from Calcutta, expecting for the two men to begin work on the hospital they have been specifically brought over to build. Instead, the husband and wife find themselves prisoners within the labyrinthine walls of the luxurious palace, while the Maharaja’s duplicitous brother, Prince Ramigani (René Deltgen), plots a coup to oust Chandra and take the reins of power for himself.

Although this story of romance, jealousy, courtly intrigue and exotic adventure is completely standard adventure movie material, it is possible to read it in a way that has pertinence to Fritz Lang’s previous body of work. For a start, there are many sequences, especially near the end, which are highly reminiscent of similar moments in “Metropolis”, and which convey similar themes. Critic Tom Gunning writes very eloquently and convincingly on this subject in the booklet that comes with these DVDs, but to crudely summarise: a major strand of the plot of “Metropolis” sees the autocratic overseer Joh Frederson ruling over an upper level cityscape of impossible grandeur, maintained by the drudges who dwell below ground in darkened catacombs while enslaved to the automated drives of the fearsome ‘Morloch’ machine – a mechanised embodiment of Frederson’s power over their lives—until, after becoming enflamed by the ‘false Maria’ created by the great scientist Rotwang, they rebel and, in tandem with explosions and great floods that symbolise an eruption of subconscious forces, break out into the upper city. It’s amazing just how similar the conclusion of Lang’s second Indian film is to those scenes we see at the end of “Metropolis”: the Maharaja’s gilded temple, the symbol of his dominion with its labyrinthine corridors acting as a prison of sorts for Irene and Dr Rhode, and the sumptuous majesty of its many gardens, winding avenues and courtyards, is also built upon foundations of deep caves and shadowy catacombs; and, as well as the great underground temple where Seetha performs not one but two -- one in each film -- erotic dances (recalling Brigette Helm’s similarly transfixing gyrations in “Metropolis”) they also are home to an underclass of pitiful creatures who eventually burst loose when the film’s plot requires a dynamite explosion and a similarly traumatic conflagration and flood. The race of underground dwellers are in fact lepers, kept hidden underground so as not to blight the surface of the Maharaja’s great realm. These are some of the creepiest scenes in all Lang’s body of work, presaging the somnambulistic living dead of George A. Romero’s cinema, these creatures live in a haunted twilight world lit in garish greens and blues, until, like the zombies in “Dawn of the Dead”, they escape their confinement and burst loose to bring an end to the regime that has kept them locked away out of sight for so long.

There is much that could also be said about the film’s surprisingly sophisticated handling of the relationship between East and Western culture, as represented by the interactions of various characters from each of the two poles of experience. They may well all be stock action adventure archetypes, and the version of India shown here is a romantic orientalist fairy tale myth full of mysticism, exoticism and vibrant colour, but the so-called hero of the film, the western architect, Harald Berger, is often shown in a less than savoury light -- ignoring requests not to invade the sanctity of the sacred temple so he can ogle Debra Paget’s half-naked dancing for instance, and ignoring Seetha’s pleading not to upset her goddess by taking fruit from a cave shrine to Shiva, which the couple come across while in need of food as they flee the Maharaja’s forces. Meanwhile Seetha is a character with a foot in both cultural camps so to speak, being a dancer raised by Indian priests to play a vital role in the sacred ceremonies of their religion, but also a person whose father turns out to have been Irish! The Maharaja himself may be driven to heinous acts by his jealousy, but he is equally a victim of conservative religious institutions and tradition (fired up by his treacherous brother) which cast suspicion over his willingness to court western influences in architecture, for he does at least want to do something about the poor by building hospitals and schools for his people. A key moment for the character comes at the end when, instead of killing a defenceless and exhausted Harald, he throws down his weapon in realisation that he can never win Seetha’s love, and goes off to train as a pious monk instead!

Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic comes to UK DVD in a special 2-disc edition from Eureka! as part of their Masters of Cinema catalogue. Disc one features “Der Tiger von Eschnapur” with a choice of the original German language soundtrack with optional English subtitles or the dubbed English audio track. Since the films feature an international cast of German, French and Italian actors, either one of these options offers a perfectly acceptable way to view it. The transfer is extremely vibrant and bursting with vivid detail and colour, really emphasising what David Kalat calls the ‘surface pleasures’ of the film. The first part of David Kalat’s audio commentary can also be heard here of course, in which the critic painstakingly reconstructs the backstory which explains Lang’s determination to make these films and how they relate to his earliest experiences in Joe May’s production company. A twenty-minute German documentary covers similar ground and features interviews with surviving cast and crew members (actress Sabine Bethmann,  art director Willi Schatz and producer Artur Brauner among them) as well as various German film scholars recounting the reception the film received from critics and audiences. Bethmann also shot some 8mm footage behind the scenes of the set which gives a fascinating glimpse of the reality behind the romantic splendour created in front of the camera. A French theatrical trailer is included for this first film, and another one for the second instalment, “Das Indische Grabmal”, can be found over on disc two, which also features the second part of Kalat’s commentary and a similarly lush-looking transfer for the film itself along with German and English audio options. Finally, the accompanying booklet features Tom Gunning’s excellent analysis of the two films, quotes extracted from several of Fritz Lang’s interviews in which he was asked about the films and testimonials from actor Paul Hubschmid, director of photography Richard Angst and art director Helmut Nentwig, who remember their experiences of working for Lang during the shoot. Plus, a few critical notices on the film are included as a postscript.

The division between serious art and so-called ‘non-serious’ genre movies such as Westerns, crime flicks and horror films has become ever more porous over the many years that have elapsed  since this two-part epic was first released. I doubt today there would be too much unwillingness on the part of modern audiences to accept the films for what they are: the exemplary products of a master craftsman and artist who just happened to be working in the comic book worlds of fantasy and romance. Though pleasurable in purely sensory terms, anyone sufficiently well versed in the narrative codes and structures of Fritz Lang’s cinema can find hidden depths behind the glossy veneer of its action adventure set-pieces and exotic, colour-drenched imagery if they so wish, but now that everything from Hammer Films to mainstream TV shows like “The Avengers” can be appreciated for their surface sophistication and wit alone, it becomes rather easier to accept and applaud the overwhelming shimmering beauty Lang and his crew of technicians managed to wring out of such rudimentary pulp adventure fiction material, and to see that as an achievement that is equally deserving of its own kind of celebration. The Masters of Cinema range has provided the means for that reassessment with this wonderful-looking new presentation of a previously maligned classic. The set is very well worth obtaining.

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