Sunday, August 18, 2019

Fritz Lang's The Tiger of Bengal and The Indian Tomb (1959)

The Tiger of Bengal (also released as The Tiger of Eschnapur which is a more faithful translation of the original German title Der Tiger von Eschnapur) is the first instalment of Fritz Lang’s so-called Indian Epic, a two-part adventure epic set in India and made in 1959 after Lang’s return to Germany. The second instalment was The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal). They are in fact a single two-part movie. The Indian Epic is based on the 1918 novel 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.

It’s obviously a very dangerous situation that is likely to lead to big trouble for all concerned. The Maharajah does not intend to abandon his attempt to win Seetha and Berger does not intend to give her up.

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.

The movie has often been criticised for its special effects. I have no idea why. Some are a bit iffy but on the whole they’re no worse than you’ll see in most movies, even big-budget movies, of its era. There’s some great Indian location shooting (the palace on the lake is the same one that appears much later in the best of the Roger Moore Bond films, Octopussy). The sets are superb, the costumes are gorgeous. It looks like a very expensive movie which it almost certainly wasn’t. At least not by Hollywood standards, although there was obviously some serious money spent on it. But if you want to make a great looking movie you need talent more than you need money. And Lang had the talent.

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.

Of course the characters are not meant to be real flesh-and-blood characters with lots of psychological complexity. It’s not that sort of story. It’s much closer to fairy tale than realistic psychological drama and we don’t expect in-depth character analysis in a fairy tale.

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.

With Lang you always have to remember that he was raised as a Catholic and whether or not he was a practising Catholic or a good Catholic his outlook remained essentially Catholic throughout his life. Critics who obsess over the rôle of fate in Lang’s films miss the point. Lang believed that fate was inescapable but he also believed in free will - whatever fate has in store for us we can still choose how to deal with that fate and redemption is always possible. It always amazes me that there are critics who fail to see the importance of redemption even in a Lang film like 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.

Mention must be made of Seetha’s snake dance. OK, the cobra isn’t very convincing, but when you’ve got a near-nude Debra Paget doing a startlingly erotic dance I don’t think anybody is going to be looking at the cobra. It’s one the scenes that amply justifies Paget's casting.

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.

Lang’s Indian Epic was a huge box-office hit in Germany. It made a lot of money and it went on making money. The critics in Germany hated the film. Being mid-century film critics they wanted serious realistic politically aware miserable films. They simply could not process the idea that a lavish exotic adventure movie might be something worthwhile. They also disliked the movie because they thought it old-fashioned. Which of course was exactly what Lang was aiming for. Most of all they hated it because it was incredibly popular. Anything that the public loved had to be bad. Critics still struggle with this movie and tend to dismiss it. But Lang liked making popular movies. Unlike the critics Lang had no problem with the idea that a movie could be artistically satisfying and also entertaining and also popular. He liked making adventure movies and science fiction and thrillers and yes he also liked making westerns. He added his personal stamp to all these genres.

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.

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