Cutting off his ties to Hollywood with the blade-bare sinistry of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), Fritz Lang returned to Germany in the late 1950s to make the final two features of his career, both resumptions, updates and evolutions on subjects and styles that forged Lang's name in Germany. His last film envisioned what German society's arch (fictional) supervillain, Dr. Mabuse, would be up to in 1960, producing the terrifying The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. Less internationally known but more extravagant than that film, whose taut black and white sparseness resembles Lang's late work in Hollywood, is the master's "Indian Epic," a two part, three plus hour revision of a Weimar-era superfilm directed by Joe May from a scenario by future Lang wife Thea von Harbou.
The epic, split into two features—The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (1959)—lacks the reputation of the director's known superfilms of the 1920s (the first Dr. Mabuse, Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, etc.) and seems confined to the forgotten corner of his filmography along with, coincidentally and ironically, much of his late 1910s and early 1920s work upon whose form the new film was inspired. For some reason or another, these films aren't revived. For the earlier films one might guess the cause isn't film quality but rather print quality. For the Indian Epic, your guess is as good as mine—the out of print U.S. DVD release from the brave little label Fantoma as well as the new release from U.K. outfit Masters of Cinema make the film look spectacular, all the more so as Lang made so few films in color and this one, as evidenced by the image grabs below, is as richly painted and deliberately hued as Renoir, Antonioni, or Godard's jumps into the spectrum.
The other reason for the film's relative obscurity is undoubtedly its seemingly ridiculous setting—a German cast speaking German half on location in India, half in spacious, artificial studio stages—and seemingly frivolous story, involving the melodrama between a German architect, the Indian prince who commissions a palace from him, and the half-Indian dancer-of-the-gods who comes between them. Combine this artificiality of production with frivolity of story and tell it with the precise, stark pointedness and bare emphasis of late-period Lang, and one seems to have an overly commercial, yet lurching and "out-dated" beast. (Though, according to Tom Gunning, the film was a commercial success. I wonder what its reputation is in Germany?)
But like Georges Franju's re-appropriation of silent serial forms and motifs in his relatively contemporaneous feature film version of Judex (1963), the undisguised bareness of these films and the sheer directness with which Lang approaches the exoticism, the mysticism, and, most importantly, the construction of his film, carries it very carefully, very methodically into another place.
That is a place of calm, a serene calm whose source of power is the mystery of the film—not who will the dancer end up with, or the power struggle of the Prince, though both of these melodramas, by the end, find their guidance from this calm. Inside the calm are three points of view: that of the Prince, whose political rule of the province and private rule of his palace place him in a position of presumed omnipotence; that of the foreign engineer, who sees the Indian palace and the ruined tombs and caverns underneath it as temporary impediments to his rational plans for the future; and that of the dancer, who sees the gods in the coincidences that set the engineer along her path and set her against the devotion of the prince. What we see here are varying fields of control: the personal, rational control of the engineer fighting the supposedly supreme ruling control of the prince—an unresolvable combat that is transfigured by the mysticism evoked in the dancer's beliefs.
The stage for this combat is, for the most part, glorious colored soundstages. The Indian Epic tells as much through the rooms Lang decorates, colors, and austerely photographs as it does through its story. Indeed, the solidity of the German and Indian's wrestling for power and control are reflected in the immovable stolidness of the sets around them—and yet despite this struggle there is this calm about the film, a calm focused on the dancer (as well as a colossal statue of a god, seen at the top of this article, and, later, in the figure of a Buddhist wise man) that suggests that while one man may have the wealth and power to commission the golden, jewel-encrusted walls around him, and the other may have the power to envision and build them, neither man really understands the source of their energy.
No man, that is, except Lang, who constructs the film as a labyrinth of sparse spaces paradoxically imbued with something other. Some spaces are opulent, some decrepit, and their construction obscures logic of navigation, of architectural connection and continuity between palace, tomb, dungeon, ruins, temple and caverns in a way that speaks entirely to this other power, restrained within the walls, immemorial, greater than any of the humans of the film and their quests for power and love.
Below is just one example, a sequence where the engineer explores the palace and seemingly every shot leads to a door and each door leads to an entirely new and unrelated space. (This sequence, in The Tiger of Eschnapur, is mirrored in a similar sequence in The Indian Tomb, where several characters become lost in the caverns which exist underneath the rooms in this sequence.) Until the end, where the labyrinth dead ends into a void and the face of death.
Fritz Lang's Indian Epic is available on DVD in the U.K. from Masters of Cinema.