The Indian Tomb by Thea von Harbou, who was married to Lang from 1922 to 1933. She and Lang had written the screenplay for a film adaptation to be directed by Lang in the early 20s but, much to Lang’s disgust, the project was taken away from him by the producer.
The film bears only a passing resemblance to the novel. What it does retain from the novel is the strange, beautiful and sinister atmosphere of the enormous palace that is the setting for most of the action.
In the film German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) arrives in Eschnapur in India where he is to design and build schools and hospitals for the local ruler, the fabulously wealthy Maharajah Chandra (Walther Reyer). On his way to Eschnapur Berger had made the acquaintance of the dancer Seetha (Debra Paget). He is fascinated by her and she is by no means indifferent to him. Unfortunately the Maharajah is equally fascinated by Seetha. He hopes that she will take the place of his deceased maharani.
There’s also trouble stirring behind the scenes at the palace, with conspiracies and counter-conspiracies.
The Tiger of Bengal and its sequel, The Indian Tomb, were released several months apart in Germany but they are in fact a single film, with a total running time of something like three hours and twenty minutes. Turning a fairly short novel into a very long film obviously meant that apart from the other plot changes a lot of stuff was going to have to be added. Some of the mystery and the dreamlike quality of the novel are lost but there’s a great deal of extra action and excitement and the story is (not unnaturally) made a lot more cinematic.
The Indian Tomb continues the story where The Tiger of Bengal leaves off - in fact The Tiger of Bengal even has a classic cliffhanger ending. There is however a slight change of tone - the foreboding in the first film becomes outright menace in the second and Berger’s sister and her husband, who have arrived from Germany in search of Berger, take centre stage for a large part of The Indian Tomb, and do so in a way that those who have read the novel will find rather interesting.
Debra Paget did not have the greatest of Hollywood careers (although she was terrific in Princess of the Nile) but she was absolutely the right choice to play Seetha. She has the right slightly exotic beauty and she knows how to make a dance suitably erotic. Seetha is supposed to be half-Indian and half-European and Paget has no trouble getting away with that. She looks right for the part and that matters more than her performance (which is in any case perfect adequate).
Paul Hubschmid is perhaps a little too passive. Walther Reyer does very well as Chandra, who is not so much a villain as a man who has been corrupted by too much unquestioned power. His motives are comprehensible and he really is justified in feeling betrayed even if his response is excessive. Chandra is a more interesting character than Berger and he is in many ways the real focus of the story.
This is a movie that bewilders some Lang fans, mostly because they make the mistake of taking him too seriously. He was one of the greatest film-makers of all time and made plenty of complex, intelligent and provocative movies but he always understood that before anything else a movie has to be entertaining, and he liked to entertain. He also shared with Thea von Harbou an enthusiasm for pulpy popular adventure fiction. This was a movie that Lang had wanted to make for nearly forty years. It was a true labour of love. Although Werner Jörg Lüddecke gets the screenwriting credit Lang made major contributions to the script. There are lots of echoes of Metropolis (which had also been scripted by Lang and Thea von Harbou). Lang was able to make the movie the way he wanted to and it is in many ways very characteristically Langian. Even in his American period he made the underrated adventure film Moonfleet (which is interestingly more highly regarded in Europe than the U.S.). It was by no means some strange departure for Lang.
You Only Live Once in which it is absolutely central. In the Indian Epic fate certainly plays a part but Seetha, Berger and Chandra all make choices. If you doubt any of this watch the ending of this movie closely. It’s all about redemption.
It’s also important to realise that the movie was in some ways an exercise in style. The visual impact, the atmosphere and the mood are more important than the plot.
The Indian Epic is an adventure film but it’s also to some extent a fairy tale. It takes place in a world that is supposed to be contemporary India but looks more like an imagined version of 19th century India with hints of the Arabian Nights and other fantastic fictional worlds. There are no radios or telephones or automobiles. You might think that Lang could easily have chosen to set the movie in 19th century India but it’s significant that he did not do this. The presence of the British would have been a fatal complication - it is important for the Maharajah to be an absolute ruler with no limitations on his power. In this respect it’s very reminiscent of the world of the Arabian Nights rather than India.
Lang is smart enough to make few compromises with any kind of strict realism. The film takes place in its own world, which is as it should be.
The question of authorship is intriguing. Thea von Harbou wrote the original novel. She and Lang wrote the screenplay for the 1921 film which Lang had hoped to direct. There was a 1938 German remake directed by Richard Eichberg and a number of plot points from that version found their way into Lang’s 1959 version (for which Eichberg gets a writing credit in Lang’s version). Werner Jörg Lüddecke wrote the original screenplay for the 1959 version but it was very substantially rewritten by Lang.
To add some confusion the two Lang films were edited together into a single 90-minute version for U.S. - Lang hated everything about this version apart from the title Journey to the Lost City which he loved.
It’s worth adding that to appreciate this movie fully it certainly helps if you’ve seen Metropolis, and probably Moonfleet, but definitely Metropolis. There are a lot of fascinating parallels.
Eureka’s Region 2 DVD release offers superb transfers and it’s packed with extras.
The Indian Epic is visually stunning and it’s terrific entertainment. This is pure Lang. He had complete creative freedom. This is a movie he desperately wanted to make and he was able to make it exactly the way he wanted to. It’s not the movie that critics at the time wanted him to make and it’s not the movie that many modern critics wished that he had made, but it is the movie he wanted to make and I think it succeeds. Very highly recommended.