… and its sequel, Das Indische Grabmal, also 1959.
Fritz Lang made the visually stunning Metropolis in 1927. Over thirty years later, freed from the constraints of black and white and silence, he made two films, which are together known as ‘Fritz Lang’s Indian epic’. The second film was Das Indische Grabmal (‘The Indian Tomb’); the first was this one, Der Tiger von Eschnapur, or ‘The Tiger of Eschnapur’.
The story is basically the same as that of a film Lang had made even further back than Metropolis; in 1921, he had made Das Indische Grabmal, based on a book by his wife Thea von Harbou (who, as you’d recall, also wrote Metropolis). In the 1950s, Lang remade Das Indische Grabmal, this time cutting it into two parts. Both Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal were released in 1959, and have been much acclaimed ever since.
I thought this might be an interesting sequel to my last post. Did Fritz Lang’s excellence in Metropolis endure through the years?
The story begins in the fictitious province of Eschnapur, somewhere in India. It is evening, and in a walled village, people are going about their business when an alarm bell sounds and everybody flies into a panic. The gates of the village are banged shut and the villagers run into their houses.
In the village, sitting and smoking his pipe is a foreigner named Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmidt). When asked, the fleeing villagers tell him there’s a man-eating tiger in the vicinity.
The tiger does manage to enter the village [How? Since it’s walled and the gates are closed…], and kills a child. In the meantime, though, Berger has come to the rescue of a young woman named Baharani (Luciana Paluzzi), who’d been filling water at a well when some soldiers began harassing her.
Once the tiger’s made off with its unfortunate victim, Baharani’s mistress comes to thank Berger. This is Seetha (Debra Paget), and Berger is besotted from the word go.
During their brief chit-chat, they discover that they’re both headed in the same direction: to the palace of Chandra (Walther Reyer), the maharaja of Eschnapur. Berger explains that he is one of two architects whom Chandra has commissioned to design a new palace. The other architect is Berger’s brother-in-law Rhodes (Claus Holm), who is currently in Calcutta and will soon arrive in Eschnapur.
Seetha tells Berger that she is a temple dancer from Banaras, and has been invited by Chandra to dance at the temple in his city. Berger, eager to be of service, offers to escort her and Baharani the next day, on their way to Chandra’s palace. Seetha gladly accepts; as Baharani says, “It would be much safer if we had a man with us.” [Considering Seetha’s obvious wealth – those jewels are not paste – and the fact that she’s Chandra’s guest, it seems odd that she and Baharani only have one person to help them along: the cart driver].
Chandra, however, has sent an escort of six guards, whom Berger, Seetha & Co. meet en route – just as the dreaded tiger attacks. Chandra’s men run off, and the tiger is about to attack Seetha, when Berger comes to the rescue, driving the tiger off with a flaming branch. Seetha is suitably grateful – and already pretty much in love with Berger.
When they arrive in the city, Berger asks Seetha if he may visit her. Not in the temple, she says – since the temple is forbidden to foreigners – but otherwise [blushing prettily], of course.
The scene now shifts to the palace, where Chandra is feeding his pet tigers. [Yes. You never know when a tiger will come in use. He has them locked up in cages on ledges above a large central pit]. Looking on are some disgruntled souls, criticising the fact that Chandra, thanks to his part-Western education, is forgetting all the good Indian ideals he was brought up with.
Foremost amongst these critics is Padhu (Jochen Brockmann). Padhu is the brother of Chandra’s dead maharani, and is upset that Chandra has sent for this upstart dancer, whom he’s so obviously in love with. Chandra has made it clear that he intends to marry Seetha, which will leave Padhu with no standing whatsoever.
Padhu’s fellow conspirator is Ramigani (René Deltgen), Chandra’s older brother. Ramigani wants to be maharaja, so is all eagerness to bump Chandra off. He feels that the Chandra-Seetha match should be encouraged. If Chandra marries a mere dancer, it will infuriate all of Eschnapur: fostering rebellion will be easy in such a situation – and Ramigani can be the benefiter.
Meanwhile, Seetha and her escort, along with Berger, arrive in the city. When Chandra learns how Berger saved Seetha from the tiger, he is very grateful and bestows a massive emerald ring on Berger.
He also appoints an assistant for Berger. This is Asagara (Jochen Blume), an Indian architect who has trained in Paris and Vienna.
One day, Berger goes to meet Seetha, and makes an astonishing discovery. As she talks to him, she strums on a musical instrument – and the tune she strums is an Irish folk tune! When Berger asks her where she learnt it, she replies that her father had taught her, many years ago; once she even knew the words to the song. She remembers them only when Berger himself begins to sing the words.
Some more questioning, and it emerges that Seetha’s parents were killed so long ago, she doesn’t remember them. She was brought up by a priest in a temple.
She does, however, have one belonging of her father’s: a guitar, on which Berger finds inscribed: To Joe, from Frank. Underneath is ‘Cambridge’, and a date in the 1800s. Seetha recalls, then, that a red-haired man used to sometimes visit her parents, and he would address her father as ‘Joe’.
Berger is very excited to learn this. It means Seetha is European! [Yes, well – I could’ve guessed that too, considering she doesn’t look Indian. But, to be fair: her face is what he points out as being proof that she isn’t ‘native’].
While they’re waiting for Rhodes to arrive, Asagara and Berger are assigned one task in the interim: to check the foundations of the existing palace. Chandra fears that years of neglect and seepage may have weakened the foundations, so Berger and Asagara, armed with torches and a map, head down into the depths.
Here, Berger stumbles upon a forgotten dungeon full of lepers, guarded only by a long-dead (and nearly mummified) soldier. Asagara assures him that the lepers have to be kept out of the city, so this is where they’re walled up.
Berger’s next discovery is much more pleasant: he finds a tunnel that leads from the palace all the way to the temple where Seetha is dancing in front of a giant idol of the “goddess Sheeva”. [Hmm. I have never heard of a Hindu goddess called Sheeva, but might this be Shiva? – a very male deity, mind you. This goddess, with her huge bosom, is certainly not Shiva].
Seetha’s dancing looks nothing like any form of Indian dance – whether classical or folk – that I’ve ever seen. In fact, the golden cap on her head is totally ludicrous too. But the audience – Chandra and a flock of priests, all of them sitting ramrod-stiff, their hands held in uncomfortable poses – look thoroughly enraptured. What with Seetha going through some very suggestive gyrations and pelvic thrusts on the idol’s upturned palm, I’m not surprised.
Berger manages to get away before anyone (except Seetha) has spotted him.
Chandra, libido now up and running, asks Seetha to shift to the palace as his guest. She does – she doesn’t have much choice – and Chandra soon makes his intentions very clear by gifting her a priceless emerald necklace (which used to be his maharani’s) and by letting her know he means to marry her.
A lot follows, in quick succession. Berger and Seetha confess their love for each other. Chandra finds out (helped along by a nasty priest named Yama, who spies on Seetha), and flies into a jealous rage. His anger is violent enough to alert Berger and Seetha, who flee for their lives, preferring to brave the desert around Eschnapur, rather than face Chandra’s certain revenge.
And Berger’s sister Irene (Sabine Bethmann) arrives with her husband, Rhodes, to be told that Berger has gone off on a tiger hunt. Irene knows her brother well enough to guess that this is hardly the way he’d be spending his spare time, so her suspicions are immediately aroused.
What does fate – and Chandra, and the motley crowd conspiring against him – have in store for Berger and Seetha? What, really, is Seetha’s past (remember ‘Joe’? Remember that guitar and that Irish folk tune Seetha knew?) And where does it all lead? Watch Das Indische Grabmal to find out.
Don’t watch this film on its own; Der Tiger von Eschnapur is, after all, only the first part of a two-film series; if you see only this one, you’ll end up with an incomplete story.
What I liked about this film:
The exterior shots, and some of the interiors that had been shot on location in Rajasthan. Fritz Lang had travelled widely in India, and his connections helped him secure the co-operation of the Maharaja of Udaipur (whose name appears – with much gratitude – in the credits). Large parts of the two films have been shot in and around the Lake Palace, with panoramic views of the lake, the palace, the blue skies above – or, inside, with fantastic views of the gardens or the gorgeous sheesh mahals (those distinctive mirror-and-glasswork halls so ubiquitous in Rajasthani and other north Indian palaces).
I love the composition of most of the shots. There’s lovely light and shadow here, superb angles and wonderful frames. Vintage Lang!
What I didn’t like:
Oh, dear. Oh, dear. I wish I could’ve said that these films impressed me as much as did Metropolis. On a very basic level, the ‘Indian epic’ and Metropolis share some similarities: an exotic locale (or at least one somewhat unfamiliar to audiences); a romance that is scowled upon by a dictator; festering rebellion; and a similar end to the story. Where Metropolis had the edge was in that it was set in a land that was out-and-out fictitious; the city of Metropolis was imaginary, a world in the future. Unfortunately, Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal are not set in a fictitious land; they’re set in India. If you happen to be Indian, or at least familiar enough with India, your reaction to this may well be similar to mine.
I squirmed and winced and giggled all through the film. People called Baharani? Ramigani? Asagara? Padhu? (yes, that’s pronounced ‘paad-hoo’, which suggests something pretty foul in Hindi!) The only people with names I’ve heard in India were Seetha and Chandra.
And a goddess named Sheeva? Please. (Also, I’m a little sceptical about Chandra’s resolve to marry Seetha. From what I can tell, Seetha – who’s described as a ‘temple dancer’ – is some sort of devadasi. In which case, she’d almost certainly be expected to have taken vows of celibacy – or at least wouldn’t be free to marry anyone).
Oh, and did I mention the clothing? Seetha’s sari pallu trails three feet behind her on the ground and is pinned seductively at her shoulder after being draped under (not over) her bosom. Plus the sari has no pleats (instead, she wears a smartly cut-and-slit sheath skirt underneath). And stilettoes.
Everybody also seems to think this gesture is a substitute for a namaste, or at least some sort of gesture of subservience:
Haven’t seen that around much, in real life.
And yes, I am forgiving the brownface, even though the makeup for the white actors purporting to be Indians changes from dark chocolate to latte from one scene to another.
Other than the problems with the cultural details (and some tatty special effects), there’s stuff here that I didn’t like with the two films. For instance, the plot and the pace are at odds with each other. The story’s a simple one: a romantic triangle mixed up with a plot to do away with the king who wants the woman. There aren’t too many plot twists and turns: not enough, at any rate, for it to have been stretched into two films. Too much time is spent on repetitive shots and dialogues: Berger and Seetha fleeing here, Berger and Seetha fleeing there, Ramigani and Padhu and Yama plotting this, Ramigani and Padhu and Yama plotting that. I found my attention wandering a lot.
Also, why on earth did that vague reference have to be made to Seetha’s European father? It created a mystery which never does get resolved – not in Der Tiger von Eschnapur, and not in Das Indische Grabmal. The only explanation I can offer is that it was a way of elevating Seetha from the ranks of the ‘natives’. If you’re at least part-white, it’s okay for the hero to fall in love with you and for that romance to end happily.
I’d read rave reviews of this film, and of Das Indische Grabmal, on everything from Rotten Tomatoes to IMDB to Amazon. I guess if you aren’t Indian, all that gorgeous exotica (not to mention Debra Paget’s admittedly sexy – but far from authentic ‘Indian’ – dance) would be reason enough to watch this duo.
Come to think of it, even if you’re Indian, you might want to watch it after all. You’re likely to get a lot of laughs out of it.