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These Walls of Theirs: Fritz Lang's Tiger Epic

Fritz Lang's Tiger Epic

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.

Fritz Lang's Tiger Epic

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.

Fritz Lang's Tiger Epic

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.

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Fritz Lang's Indian Epic is available on DVD in the U.K. from Masters of Cinema.

Another fine piece Daniel. I really like what you’ve been doing with the stills as illustrations of your articles. While I have mixed feelings about the films myself, I can’t deny the validity of your main points as the architecture of the film is what stuck with me the most as well. I would perhaps take some slight issue with the idea these two films are overlooked in some sense as I feel as if I have read more people bringing these two up in the last couple of years than many of Lang’s older films. That isn’t to say that I disagree with your point in its larger sense, most cinephiles likely haven’t yet had a chance to see these movies, but in the part of the critical community that has, I think they are starting to tend towards that weird concept of being both slightly over-celebrated because they are less seen. (I re-emphasize slightly in that last sentence.) To the extent this may be true, there are some understandable reasons for it as they were ignored for so long, and so much has been said about some of Lang’s other films. I would just caution those less familiar with Lang to perhaps look at some of his other films first before coming to these since they are more interesting from a career perspective than as stand alone films I think, even as I also found them both pleasing enough on their own terms.
Excellent piece, Danny! I find the Indian Epic to be fascinating, and perhaps the reason it’s overlooked is that it’s less successful on the terms of a genre film (unlike, say, The Big Heat) than it is as an atmospheric and nostalgic reverie for another era of cinema. I remember reading in Patrick McGilligan’s (unnecessarily damning) biography of Lang that Lang was very fond of the Indian Epic, and was hurt when German critics of the time panned it. Lang’s reaction to his own films fascinates me. I know he thought poorly (or ambivalently) of such films as Moonfleet, Ministry of Fear, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, but the Indian Epic must have had a very personal attachment for him.
Great piece, Danny! I’ve always been curious about these movies and seeing those stills just made me bump these up in my Netflix queue.
I have got to finally check out the Fantoma copy of INDIAN TOMB a buddy gave me.
To my knowledge, these films were hardly noticed here in Germany and were previously considered a sad career end for Fritz Lang. I don´t agree of course. :)
About these films and Germany, Straub said some very illuminating things: “Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal are the only films that are superproductions without being superproducts, which are made with all the money that he had at his disposal without creating a smokescreen. And which nevertheless are not made against money; because now, that’s easier to do: Godard, in his evolution, has discovered that it is necessary to make oppositional films. But for a man of Fritz Lang’s generation, this wasn’t possible, an idea like that. And yet he succeeded in making these two films, where he really gave something to the Germans who had been dying of hunger for so many years—since ‘33 and even before ’33, up to the Currency Reform for which the leftist intellectuals had so much contempt, until the moment when the people would begin again to be able to know a little what it meant to live: this is what has been called the German economic miracle. For a good many people, this was the first time that they finally revived, that they were eating normally—of course there was the speculation and all the rest, okay. (The arrival of the consumer society, that’s the negative aspect of it.) But Fritz Lang, at this moment, made something for the people which was a gift, let’s say, of gold. . . . The producer was really eager to make a golden calf. Fritz Lang made a film.”
Thank you for sharing that, Andy. I hadn’t known Straub to be a fan of this. In fact, I haven’t read much criticism on the film(s) at all.
Thanks Andy. Your quote mobilized me to do some research; Alexander Kluge, with whom Straub would quarrel, worked on The Indian Tomb as an assistant, under Theodor Adorno’s recommendation to Lang, and evidently took cover in the cafeteria to write his first short story collection while Lang and the studio fought. Here’s Kluge: “I performed legal services for the Institute for Social Research. At first I was a lawyer and wrote stories. Only afterwards did I concern myself with film. Horkheimer and Adorno did not take me seriously as an author. They said, ‘He is a first-rate lawyer, we like him and are friendly with him, but he just should not make films, and in no event should he write any stories.’ After Marcel Proust, one can no longer write stories any more. That was Adorno’s opinion. He sent me to Fritz Lang in order to protect me from something worse, so that I wouldn’t get the idea to write any books. If I were turned away, then I would ultimately do something more valuable, which was to continue to be legal counsel to the Institute for Social Research. It was a mixture of friendship and technical activity on their behalf that tied me to them.” Somewhat interesting Kluge’s suggestion that Adorno (or Horkheimer), years after writing withering critiques of the Hollywood Industrial Complex, would advocate studio fare from an old Hollywood friend for a young avant-gardist over the much worse fate of writing literature. Have heard it said, and wonder how possible it is to speculate, that for Kluge, possibly Adorno, these films were the great hope for a new German cinema for the people.
Funny you found that, David — we’re going to publish a follow-up that mentions it as well.

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