Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Fritz Lang's Indian Epic: The Tiger of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb

Some movie critics will describe themselves as nerds, but do they reference R-squared to address a film's shortcomings and barely back off from making a stem cell metaphor explicit? Nay, that's the sort of specialized left-brained film criticism you come to this blog for.

I picked this double feature up when Film Movement was having a nice Christmas sale on classics, including pre-orders, and it's admittedly something I was kind of leary about - on the one hand, yeah, I like Fritz Land and Saturday-serial type adventures, but, oof, this is a lot of people in brownface. I couldn't really read the German credits, but it looks like the only South Asian people involved were those that gave permission to shoot there. This genre is one of several where it's easy to like this type of story but wish there were a way to shake some of the never-actually-great assumptions out.

One thing I did think about, as the 4:3 image occupied the center of a fair-sized TV, was what kind of impression this must have made on giant screens. I don't know whether German theaters in 1959 were starting to be divided or if you still had the palaces that held upward of a thousand, but something I often go back to with older films framed like this is that there are some shots where the human being in it is roughly to scale and it emphasizes just how big everything around him is, and you can get away with that in part because you've got terrific fine-grained film to project. The Blu-ray looks very nice, but you almost certainly can't get that sense of scale any more, especially when the world has shrunken to a two-bedroom apartment and wherever you can guiltily walk to from it.

Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

The full-circle aspect of Fritz Lang's career is kind of fascinating: After a career that started in German silents and took him to France and then Hollywood as he fled Nazi Germany, he would return to Europe in the late 1950s for three final films which all tied back to the early days of his career, a relaunching the Dr. Mabuse franchise and finally adapting a novel by former wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou that they had intended to make in the 1920s. The result is not necessarily worth waiting thirty-odd years for, but it is interesting for how it straddles the two eras.

It opens with architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) on his way to the Indian city of the title, where Maharajah Chandra (Walther Reyer) has hired the German architect to help with an ambitious program of building schools and hospitals. A man-eating tiger stalks the road, and when Harald saves dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) and her servant Bharani (Luciana Paluzzi) from its attack, the smitten Seetha says she has never imagined two tigers fighting over her. But Chandra also has his eye on Seetha, blinding him to the ambitions of his brother Ramigani (René Deltgen) and others who think Chandra has absorbed too many European ideas.

Though the film was partially shot in India, there are not any actual non-Caucasians credited, and it's probably damning with the faintest praise to point out that the film isn't the worst-case scenario of Lang adapting a novel about adventure in exotic Asia written by his ex-wife who stayed behind in Germany because she was a member of the Nazi party (albeit one secretly married to Indian writer Ayi Tendulkar). There is inevitably a large portion of the cast in brownface, although the application can be peculiar at times (one scene seems to cut between Debra Paget variously in light makeup, heavy makeup, and a skinsuit), and while there's not a perfect correlation between a character's goodness and European ancestry/education, the r-squared is pretty darn high. As "products of their time" go, this movie certainly could be worse, but it could also be a whole lot better, even before we start talking about how its lepers are basically zombies.

It could also generally be more exciting. The Tiger of Eschnapur is the first half of a two-film "epic", so it can be forgiven for spending a lot of time moving pieces in its place and working toward a cliffhanger rather than a resolution, but there are long stretches once Harald arrives at the palace that he doesn't have much of a chance to be the tiger he's occasionally shown to be. At times, it doesn't seem like Lang and actor Paul Hubschmid ever decided whether he should be a swashbuckling type or not; Hubschmid moves easily enough when it's time for Harald to spring into action, but often has a hard time giving Harald a personality when there's not immediate danger. He's blandly affable, which at least is better than Walther Reyer, René Deltgen, Jochen Blume and the rest playing Indian men manage most of the time as they mostly play "foreign but not too foreign" until it's time to be ruthless.

Debra Paget is in the same boat - she gets to be smitten and occasionally nervous about what her own history may contain as Seetha, but she's mostly there to show plenty of leg, threading the needle between thinking nothing of exposing her body while still being an innocent young woman, and do a dance that I suspect has very little to do with traditional Indian forms. She's twenty-five and much closer to the end of her film career than the beginning, able to play this sort of ingenue in her sleep and not particularly inspired by doing it in German. She's got the most to do, but that isn't much.

Still, it's worth watching how Lang and company put the movie together visually - he uses the same squarish Academy ratio he used in the silent era even though this sort of movie was starting to be made in CinemaScope by then, and the high ceiling letting him create pits and antechambers dominated by large (and unsettlingly curvy) statues. Most of us can only imagine it on an old movie palace's screen with the human-sized characters dwarfed by their surroundings, most notably in a surreal scene where Harald walks through vast, empty spaces, unseen forces herding him toward a pit filled with hungry tigers.

It's a climax that doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense, or completely work. On the other hand, it's so much more like Lang's early films, where pulp adventure hadn't yet differentiated from art-house surrealism, than the Technicolor epics Hollywood was cranking out at the time as to be fascinating. It is, at the very least, good and interesting enough to stick around for the second part that would follow quickly on its heels.

Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

All three German film adaptations of Thea von Harbou's novel "Das indische Grambal" have been split into two parts, and it's an amusing bit of happenstance that many Indian films would later follow the same sort of structure, with a second half that jumps ahead or redirects what had been going on before, though as one film with an intermission rather than two separate admissions. The change in focus does Fritz Lang's take on the material some good, although it may just be a matter of it mostly being done with set-up early and then getting things done.

Though last seen unconscious in the desert, star-crossed lovers Harald (Paul Hubschmid) and Seetha (Debra Paget) are found by a group of peaceful traders, though Maharadjah Chandra (Walther Reyer) still intends to have Seetha's hand and Harald's head. Back in the palace, Harald's partner Walter Rhode (Claus Holm) has arrived with his wife (and Harald's sister) Irene (Sabine Bethmann), who finds Chandra's story about her brother being out on a tiger hunt suspicious, especially since Chandra has told Rhode to design an elaborate tomb for Seetha, saying it will be a testament to his love even after he intends to seal her in it alive. This plan does not particularly please his brother Ramigani, whose plan to purge his brother requires him to actually offend the people by marrying this dancer so far below his station.

It's a messy and occasionally ridiculous set of plots and occasionally more than screenwriter Werner Jörg Lüddecke's script can handle - major threads carried over from the first movie disappear for long stretches and Lang hasn't really established the dynamics of Eschnapur well enough for all the forces of tradition in play by the end to be more than arbitrary rules established for plotting convenience. The implicit colonial attitudes where morally superior Europeans must prevail over brutal and treacherous natives is in somewhat sharper relief as well.

Along those lines, it probably shouldn't escape notice that Seetha seems to become more Caucasian as the film goes on; aside from a lighter makeup application, the girl who so pointedly considered herself of India even upon being confronted with her father most likely being white now sighs as the prospect of voyaging to Europe with Harald and discards her faith in her pantheon when it looks like her offerings haven't protected Harald. To be sure, it's probably good for Debra Paget and the character she plays - this hardened Seetha is less likely to shrink from confrontation and lets Paget take hold of a scene in way she seldom had the chance to do in the first part, and Paget winds up capable of holding a scene when given a chance.

The rest of the cast gets to give more engaging performances as well; the mask is off for both Chandra and those conspiring against him, and both Walther Reyer as the Maharajah and René Deltgen, Jachen Brockmann, and Valéry Inkijinoff as those after his power get to revel in their rage and ambition. Perhaps most importantly, the Rhodes as a pair are very much an upgrade on Harald as the Europeans trying to navigate the foreign intrigues they are surrounded with: The slightly foppish but intelligent and principled air Claus Holm gives Walter Rhode at the start becomes pained as he confronts comfort with wielding the power of life and death, while Sabine Bethmann nicely captures the resourcefulness and bravery that lurks behind Irene's elegant seeming innocence. They get to have a more interesting rapport with Jochen Blume's local engineer than Paul Hubschmid did in the first, and it doesn't hurt that Blume has more to do with his Asagara torn between the loyalty a king requires and his respect for his new friends. And while Harald is sidelined for much of the movie, Hubschmid does good physical work as a worn-down man of action.

The film could maybe do a bit better in terms of action - the big showstopper is initially a dance number for Paget that takes place against the same backdrop as the one in the first part, albeit with her wearing something that may or may not technically count as a costume and sharing the screen with a questionable snake puppet. Most surprisingly, the audience never actually gets the payoff of the magnificent tomb of the title, although Lang and company do the Saturday-serial stuff with everybody racing through underground passages and setting dynamite and such. Lang may not have had the room to flesh out everything he included in these two relatively short movies, but he pays them off in decisive, satisfying fashion.

This wouldn't quite be Lang's last hurrah - he would co-write and direct the first entry in the 1960s Dr. Mabuse series the next year - and never quite reaches the heights of his silent epics. It is, however, a mostly-entertaining return to the sort of thing that put him on the map.

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