Fritz Lang’s Indian epic, the two-part The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, is not generally mentioned among the auteur’s great works. And, truth be told, it probably shouldn’t be. Despite its troubling shortcomings, though, it bears some undeniably powerful Langian touches. When Paul Hubschmid (as Harald Berger, to architects as Indiana Jones is to archeologists) stands in half-stripped tableau brandishing a flaming log, having just scared off a tiger (or a stuntman in a tiger costume, at least), it’s hard not to think of a mythical hero of the natural world like Die Nibelungen‘s Siegfried. Moments like this, of which there are more than a few, are respites from the 200-plus minute epic’s more trying elements.
Berger has been contracted by Chandra (Walther Reyes), the Maharajah of Eschanpur, to come design schools and hospitals in his state. On the way there, he meets Seetha (Debra Paget), the beautiful temple dancer who is traveling to Eschnapur to be Chandra’s wife. Berger and Seetha fall in love, which angers Chandra and blinds him to the rebellion being stirred by his own brother, Prince Ramigani (René Deltgen).
Eagle-eyed readers will note that, though three of the characters mentioned in the paragraph above are Indian, the names of the actors portraying them are decidedly not. The two films’ most glaring problem is that, despite clearly shooting large portions of it in India–and putting the country’s landscape and architecture to beautiful use–every substantial Indian role is played by a white person in brownface. This fact would be distracting enough on its own to mar most of the three hours and twenty-something minutes. But the racism it suggests is confirmed by the text. European exceptionalism is the rule here, with whites being unquestionably good and Indians with European blood or with European educations blatantly portrayed as more civilized. Anything nice the movies have to say about Indian culture, they do so patronizingly and with othering exoticism.
It’s difficult not to wish for a return on Lang’s part to his early, silent filmmaking as, once the characters do shut up, both films are replete with gorgeous, masterful framing and lighting (Richard Angst is the director of photography). The multi-colored paints and fabrics of India are mirrored in brilliant, almost wet, splashes of bright, rich light. Torches shine in gold and underground pools of water reflect purple.
For what it’s worth, most of the really offensive stuff is in The Tiger of Eschnapur. The Indian Tomb, on the other hand, benefits from being weighted toward action and other forms of spectacle. There’s still all the brownface, though; no escaping that. Both films, but especially the latter one, excel at old-fashioned thrills and suspense, delivered with considerably more blood and violence than similar, handsomely mounted American epics of the era would offer.
But the real spectacle (at the risk of prurience) is Paget herself. She bears a resemblance to Rachel Weisz and her charms don’t end there. Beguiling and captivating even in dialogue scenes, her real centerpieces are two dance sequences, one in each film. The Indian Tomb‘s “snake dance” is as memorable for her outfit as it is for her gyrations. Unfortunately, none of it is worth sitting through all of the colonial condescension.