Fritz Lang, the director best-remembered for the silent classic Metropolis and the early sound classic M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, set precedents in all kinds of ways. Just one of those was by being a non-American director of exceptional talent who moved to Hollywood, never managed to make anything as brilliant as he had in his homeland, before returning and resuming his great work, establishing a model for Louis Malle, John Woo and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, among others, to follow. After twenty years in Hollywood making stylish yet formulaic B-movies, Lang found his redemption in the maverick manoeuvre of adapting a bestselling novel written by his ex-wife. The Indian Tomb had actually been adapted twice before – including a version from the 1930s that Lang had contributed to – both times as an epic two-part serial, a tradition Lang’s 1959 version also follows.
The two films, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, are best watched – like most serials – as one long film, or at least in fairly quick succession, such as on consecutive nights. The melodramatic plot begins when the Maharaja of the Indian province of Eschnapur hires German architect Harold Berger (Paul Hubschmid) – the picture is, of course, done in German; you’ll have to just get used to the oddness of seeing Indians address other Indians in German. Berger is under the impression he’s here to build schools and hospitals, but these plans quickly get lost amid intrigues at court, after Berger rescues a temple dancer (American Debra Paget), whom the Maharaja covets, from a tiger and the two begin to fall in love. The two films offer plenty more intrigue, romance, Gothic horror, and dashing adventure, all realised with more than enough splendour and vividness to make them suitable Sunday-afternoon entertainments.
It’s hard to pick a favourite half; while Tiger of Eschnapur might prove more enjoyable, with brighter colours, fewer implausibilities, and scenes showcasing the Indian location filming, the gloomier Indian Tomb is where Lang gets to show off what he was still capable of creating. The picture is dominated by studio sets, Lang’s trademark depth of field – and even a return to the Expressionism he largely abandoned during the Hollywood years – creating a sense of claustrophobia and desperation. Particularly memorable scenes involve a mass of lepers like a zombie horde, and Paget’s hypnotic snake dance, which proved too much for Hays Code censors, who also chopped the three-hour plus two-parter into a single 90-minute film, Journey to the Lost City. For a good forty years, that version was feared to be the only one still extant; luckily, the myriad pleasures to be found in this Indian epic can be enjoyed as intended: a journey of the imagination into the realm of pure escapism.
The Tiger Of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb open at Film Forum on September 27th.