Back in 1921, Fritz Lang had hoped he would be able to direct the script he concocted with then-wife Thea von Harbou about an architect who gets mired in pulpy adventures and romance in deepest, darkest India, but producer & studio bigwig Joe May not only decided to direct the film himself, but cast his wife Mia as the much younger love interest.
Whether the lost opportunity quietly seethed within Lang is speculation, but when producer Artur Brauner approached him with a directorial offer in the late fifties, Lang snapped it up and had Werner Jorg Luddecke rework von Harbou’s original story into a pulpier tale which, like the 1921 film [M], would be divided into two movies, and be shown like an old-time serial with a cliffhanger strategically placed at the midpoint.
Lang wasn’t new to cinema pulp; his 1928 Spionen / Spies (1928) feels like a feature-length edit of a movie serial, and his Dr. Mabuse series similarly involves an evil villain with an unhealthy hunger for domination over people, of not the world. The two halves that make up his ‘Indian Epic’ is designed to revisit the exotic adventures of white folks getting too enmeshed in the politics and forbidden fruit of far away cultures, and as ridiculous as the film becomes, it’s nevertheless super-fun.
Like Spies, Lang’s sense of pacing is immaculate, and scenes generally move at a crisp speed in Part 1, Der Tiger von Eschnapur / The Tiger of Eschnapur, where architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) arrives at the remote palace of Maharaja Chandra (Walter Reyer) to design and build a hospital. It’s an opening that parallel’s Jonathan Harker’s arrival at Count Dracula’s castle for a business matter, and like Harker, Berger will soon notice certain behavioural irregularities of his host, and eventually find himself trapped in a palatial home with many hidden rooms and corridors.
Lang also incorporated the use of a massive network of underground caverns from the 1921 film as well as his own Metropolis (1927), as it’s the catacombs which become vital escape roots and provide meeting places between the ensnared hero & heroine, as well as the discovery of the ruler’s darkest secret. In Metropolis, the caverns held in place the slave labour, hidden away from the view of the surface dwellers, whereas in the Indian epics they house a giant oubliette - a room of sick townspeople and Lepers, doomed to die underground, and like brain dead zombies, they await the occasional visit of one of Chandra’s overly curious stray guests.
The caverns also become the link or network through which Harald falls in love with half-breed dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) and witnesses the forbidden dance which would under any circumstances, get a white dude killed. The script’s conceit has the tunnels being so pronounced that Harald is able to navigate easily within Chandra’s palace as well as the exclusive temple; Lang also never bothers with details as to how Harald and Seetha were able to flee from the virtual island in the lake to the mainland, where they attempt to escape and end up near death in a desert at the end of Part 1.
Part 2, Das indische Grabmal / The Indian Tomb, naturally has the couple picked up by locals who nurse them back to health, and although the pair are eventually caught and separately incarcerated by Chandra, their reunion is guaranteed, given Lang’s films are classic pulp wherein the hero will hook up with the hot girl at specific junctures.
Unlike Part 1, the second half of his Indian epic slows down for political intrigue, and although it doesn’t feel wholly contrived, long scenes put any action on Pause, and it takes a while before all the warring & bickering factions converge. The finale quickly wraps up with Chandra being humbled, the rebellion quashed, and Harald saving Seetha from being entombed alive.
The Indian diptych ends well for all, but within Lang’s canon, it’s not his best work. German critics reportedly disliked the film, and when sold to American International Pictures the studio hacked down the two parts into one 95 minute film, making a mess of things, and cheapening an otherwise elegant, lavish B-movie with robust colours. Filmed in standard 1.37:1, AIP apparently cropped the image for 2.35:1 exhibition, and while that version remained the only source for Lang’s North American fans, it was supplanted by Fantomas’ 2-disc DVD release in 2003, which presented the film in its original 2-part format and proper aspect ratio (albeit in non-anamorphic transfers).
Contemporary audiences will find the rubber alligators and snake (with wires) laughable, not to mention white actors decked out in brown pain to impersonate Indians (Italian redhead Lucianna Paluzzi looks especially ridiculous with black hair and brown face goo #12), but there are sequences which are quite thrilling, and perhaps influential, insofar as Lang’s colourful transposition of classic serial cliffhangers were imitated by later filmmakers in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
The performances in both parts are generally good, although Sabine Bethmann as Harald’s sister is fairly wooden and bland, and Claus Holm as Harald’s brother-in-law basically complains and remains in a state of outrage for most of the film. Hubschmid had already made a few English language films (notably The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953) and makes a good variant of Indiana Jones, fending off live tigers and zombie-like lepers while being an inherently skilled architect / egghead, whereas Paget manages to meet the demands of her dancer character by doing not one but two risqué numbers wearing barely any clothes. (Lang staged each number under the shadow of a big-breasted statue, and Paget performs repeated groinal thrusts and contortions like a pro, even when wearing pasted-on costume parts during what’s essentially a burlesque number.)
Paget was originally a Fox contract starlet, and worked her way up playing the bubbly girl next-door, Indians, poor Romans, Medieval waifs, Egyptian Princesses, and Polynesian babes duty-bound to a volcanic self-sacrifice before she got more contemporary parts, yet even in her most exotic roles (as in The Ten Commandments) she became typecast as the girl most likely to be smacked, abducted, trussed up, and emotionally abused, and in the Indian epics she’s still a bit of a victim, albeit with a stronger sense of self; she never caves to Chandra’s demands, but she does get smacked around and tied up now & then.
The two big draws within Lang’s film is the fun pulp factor, and (obviously) Paget’s dance numbers because the latter sequences stop the film cold to show off her impeccable physique and midsection. However, unlike the AIP poster campaign, there are no scenes where Seetha brandishes a sword; Harald tends to take the heat while Seetha generally watches or waits, cowering at a distance. Also amusing is Bethmann’s preposterous costume changes which have her either wearing jeans & a work shirt, or some fifties dinner gown with flowing powder blue chiffon.
Richard Angst’s cinematography’s first-rate, and like Mario Bava’s films, scenes are lit with colourful gels, giving even the grim Leper’s jail an eerie style. If the Indian epics ever make their way to Blu-ray, Lang & Angst’s use of colour will look brilliant.
In Part 1, jazzman Michele Michelet wrote a unique score that blends almost freestyle sounds with orchestra, making good use of dissonance and pseudo-Indian harmonics without sounding clichéd, whereas for Part 2 German composer Gerhard Becker stuck with an older & rather creaky style, almost mimicking the repetitive theme patterns of silent film scores. The only continuity between the scores (the division of labour likely stemmed from the need to balance the film’s French / German / Italian financing) is the use of an Irish folk song, which Seetha remembers from her childhood, sung by her whiteboy dad.
At present, Lang’s films are newly available on DVD from Britain’s Eureka, but the ideal would be a Blu-ray release featuring the film with optional German, English, and French dub tracks, plus the butchered AIP version, released as Journey to the Lost World in 1960. The French-dubbed versions of Parts 1 and 2 have only been seen on this side of the pond via Ontario’s TFO channel, and the remnants of MGM probably still claim some ownership of the AIP cut, given the company owns the old AIP catalogue.
Fritz Lang’s declining vision and weakening stature in Hollywood allowed for one more film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), which Baruner also produced as part of postwar Germany’s attempt to bring talent back home and release indigenous product, whereas Hubschmid enjoyed a healthy career in film and TV.
By 1959 Paget was no longer a Fox contract star, and had appeared in several TV series and just the odd feature film role. The Indian epic may have offered her a co-starring role in an international production, but its mangled English language released did little to improve her choice of roles. She appeared in a pair of memorable AIP shockers – Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962) and The Haunted Palace (1963) before leaving acting two years later.
Lang’s Indian epic was in fact the third attempt at dramatizing von Harbou’s story. Richard Eichberg adapted, directed & co-produced a 1938 version with separate German and French actors. This version is available in France on DVD.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan