Fritz Lang’s Two-Part Indian Epic

The film industry is rife with tales about directors who struggled and failed to bring their dream projects to the screen and the subject would make a fascinating, behind-the-scenes non-fiction book about the precarious nature of moviemaking. Among the more famous examples are Orson Welles, who pitched a film version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to RKO executives, who instead chose Welles’ second idea, Citizen Kane,  Josef von Sternberg’s ambitious 1937 production of I, Claudius, which was started but never completed due to disagreements between the director and Charles Laughton plus the injury of leading lady Merle Oberon in a car accident, and Robert Altman, who wanted to make a film version of the 1997 documentary Hands on a Hard Body and had even cast it but died before production could begin. Yet, for all the films-that-might-have-been, there are many examples of directors who finally succeeded in making their passion projects and one of them is Fritz Lang. His lifelong desire to make a film of the 1917 novel, The Indian Tomb, written by his former wife Thea Von Harbou, was finally realized in the late 1950s when he started production on a lavish movie adaptation that would be released in two parts as The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, both 1959.

The genesis of the project can actually be traced back to 1919 when Thea Von Harbou and Fritz Lang first met and began a professional relationship which eventually led to marriage. At the time Von Harbou was working for director/producer Joe May as a screenwriter and May asked her to develop her novel as a two-part film. Lang, who was working for May as an assistant director, was assigned to help Von Harbou with the adaptation and he was led to believe he would also get to direct. Then he was informed by May that the film’s investors didn’t trust a novice director with such an ambitious production so May stepped in to helm the films. Lang left to pursue his own projects but suspected that May had intended to direct it all along because he knew it would be a commercial success. He was right. Mysteries of India, Part 1: Truth (Das Indische Grabmal Erster Teil – Die Sendung des Yoghi, 1921) and Mysteries of India, Part 2: Above All Law (Das Indische Grabmal Zweiter Teil – Der Tiger von Eschnapur, 1921) were big hits with German moviegoers who were fascinated at the time by the myths and exotic allure of India.

As a result, Lang would harbor a life-long desire to make his own version of The Indian Tomb and the opportunity finally presented itself in 1957 when Los Angeles agent Sam Jaffe approached Lang with the prospect of finally realizing his dream project. The timing couldn’t have been better. Lang had recently fled Hollywood after making his final film there, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), and was considering retirement. Jaffe’s offer lured Lang back to filmmaking and marked the first time the director had made movies in his native land since 1933 when he directed The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). That was his last German film before fleeing to France as the Nazi Party came to power.

Enter Artur Brauner, a film producer who was more than happy to produce Lang’s project because he was equally enthralled with Von Harbou’s original novel and had recently acquired the film rights (Von Harbou’s novel had already been filmed as a two-part epic a second time in 1938 by German director Richard Eichberg). By the terms of his contract, Lang was given complete control of selecting the cast, crew and script supervision plus he received the special citation ‘A Fritz Lang Film’ at the head of the credits.

German director Fritz Lang

For screenwriter, Lang chose former journalist Werner Jorg Luddecke, who had already earned acclaim for such screenplays as The Plot to Assassinate Hitler (1955), The Devil Strikes at Night (1957) and Ship of the Dead (1959). His cinematographer was Richard Angst, who had filmed numerous mountain films (a specific German genre) by Arnold Franck starring Leni Riefenstahl (White Hell of Pitz Palu, Storm Over Mont Blanc) and Luis Trenker (The Mountaineers, The Holy Mountain). While both movies had a lavish budget, the majority of the filmmaking took place in a Berlin studio with some exterior location shooting in India.

Walther Reyer as Prince Chandra and Debra Paget as Seetha in Fritz Lang’s two-part Indian epic based on the 1918 novel THE INDIAN TOMB.

When it came to casting, producer Brauner expressed an interest in either Anna Kashfi (the ex-wife of Marlon Brando) or Nadja Tiller, a former Miss Austria, as Seetha the Sheeva dancer, the female lead. In the end, the producer and director decided to go with American actress Debra Paget (The Ten Commandments, Love Me Tender) as a more bankable name. The rest of the other major roles were played by well-known actors from German cinema such as Paul Hubschmid and Walther Reyer.

Das Indische Grabmal Year: 1959 – West Germany Director: Fritz Lang. Paul Hubschmid as Harald Berger defends Debra Paget as Seetha from their pursuers in THE INDIAN TOMB.

On the set, Lang was a commanding figure and he reigned over the cast and crew like a dictator but no one questioned his professionalism or his talent. One person who didn’t enjoy the experience, however, was Debra Paget. In an interview with Tom Weaver for his book, Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, she discussed the difficulties of filming on location in India (there were huge rats everywhere – her bedroom for instance) and her provocative costume in the dance scene with the cobra god. Regarding the latter she said, “..if Fritz had his way, it would have been less. Actually, one costume was just glued on. It was like a bikini, but there were no straps – they glued it on with a marvelous glue called Uhu. In fact, we used to call it “the Uhu movie” because earrings were glued on, everything was glued on, they’d just bring out the Uhu! The costume was actually glued on me and I danced in it. Any little move and we just had to cut and grab and re-glue me. And the only thing which would take that glue off was benzene, which is gasoline. By the third day, I was just like raw hamburger, everywhere. It was a mess.” On-screen, however, Paget has an intoxicating beauty and her dance scenes are a mesmerizing combination of eroticism and high camp.

Seetha (Debra Paget) attempts to hypnotize the cobra with her exotic dance in THE INDIAN TOMB (1959) released in the U.S. in an edited form entitled JOURNEY TO THE LOST CITY (1960).

The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb were released as two films in Germany as originally intended and Tiger, the first part, introduces us to German architect Harald Berger (Hubschmid), who has been hired by the Maharajah of Eschnapur (Reyer) to design and build a new temple. Berger is soon smitten with Seetha, a temple dancer, but the Maharajah has already claimed her as his future bride. Meanwhile, Prince Ramigani (Rene Deltgen), the Maharajah’s wicked brother, is plotting a palace revolt to overthrow his brother and take command of the region. In Tomb, the second half, the two lovers (Berger and Seetha) have fled into the desert to escape the Maharajah’s wrath. Unbeknownst to Berger, his sister Irene (Sabine Bethmann) and her husband Walter (Claus Holm) have been summoned to the palace to complete the work that Berger began with no idea of the ensuing intrigues and political unrest. Sandstorms, a leper colony deep in the bowels of the palace, the capture of Berger and Seetha and a full-scale rebellion all come into play in the finale.

Seetha (Debra Paget) fears Prince Ramigani (Rene Deltgen), the treacherous brother of Prince Chandra in THE INDIAN TOMB (1959), a two-part epic by Fritz Lang.

Both films were a huge success in Germany upon their release but the majority of German critics dismissed Lang’s work as a waste of his talent with one reviewer calling the films “an orgy of trash and kitsch.” At a time when the French New Wave was introducing the world to a fresh, new innovative approach to filmmaking that was topical and shot on the fly with young casts and crews, Lang’s epic looked old-fashioned and unsophisticated, something much more in the tradition of a serial adventure like Jungle Girl or Drums of Fu Manchu instead of the gripping film noirs that made his reputation.  

German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) is tortured and threatened with death in Fritz Lang’s 1959 two part epic, THE INDIAN TOMB.

The American distributors likewise saw both The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb as colorful but routine adventures which were ideal for undiscriminating juvenile audiences. As a result, American International Pictures retitled the film as Journey to the Lost City, reduced its original running time from 201 minutes to 90 minutes, dubbed it into English, and made Paget, the only American actor in the cast, the focus of their ad campaign. Not surprisingly, it was poorly received in its butchered form by most critics of any influence but Paget’s exotic dancing certainly made an impression on a lot of eleven-year-old boys – one of whom was probably Steven Spielberg whose later Indiana Jones series was obviously influenced by the sets and the exotic atmosphere of Lang’s epic.

Seen today The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are revelations and it seems possible that the hostile critical reception the films received in 1959 were due to unrealistic expectations from a director some countrymen saw as a traitor for working in self-imposed exile in the U.S. during the war. Tom Gunning, a media studies professor at the University of Chicago, writes that in order to appreciate both films, “you must let yourself be absorbed into an unreal world realized by a master of cinematic style. But if the film is mythic, it is not childish….increasingly, the typical Lang paranoia sets in. The bright apartments become prison cages and the gleaming palaces rest over a decadent maze of caves, underground lakes and tunnels, a realm of death guarded by corpses and inhabited by the living dead.” The films, in their own way, are just as mythic and otherworldly as Lang’s 1924 two-part fantasy epic, Die Nibelungen (Siegfried, Part 1 and Kriemhild’s Revenge, Part 2).

For years it was impossible for U.S. audiences to see Lang’s original two-part German release until Fantoma’s 2001 DVD release of The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, which were digitally mastered at American Zoetrope DVD lab. Improving on that transfer in 2019 was Film Movement which presented both films as 4k restorations on Blu-ray with extra features. Highly recommended.

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