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If we’re talking penultimate works, The Beatles have Abbey Road, and Fritz Lang has The Indian Epic. Just like Abbey Road’s victory lap gains an intergalactic resonance through its extended length, synth breakthroughs, and giving Ringo a drum solo, in The Indian Epic Lang returned to German producers to deliver a film on the scale of his silent works, one that crystallises the director’s essence in every bloated scene. The Indian Epic is a greatest hits album that finds Lang giving viewers pleasure even while the eye-popping colours and classical staging reveals some of his biggest political problems.
By the late 1950s it was clear that Lang could only be rejuvenated by leaving the American cinema behind him. Throughout the decade, the psychological realism of his Hollywood films had reached new heights. His Emile Zola adaptation Human Desire (1954) was a zenith of sorts, mapping as it does the eventually murderous sexual desires of a working-class couple (wearisome railyard operator Broderick Crawford and his horny housewife Gloria Grahame) onto the urban web of the train track. Yet, the dominant understanding of Lang as a cold inhumane filmmaker who cares about structure and not individuals holds no water considering his ability to connect directly with unspeakable feelings. Lang had found a way to turn his trademark – a character’s glare of horror straight down the camera lens – into a mood across a whole feature. And that camera angle travels to Demme (You Only Live Once and Something Wild are similar, after all) and Barry Jenkins (whose upcoming Colson Whitehead adaptation The Underground Railroad concerns train tracks linking a secret nationwide network).
Human Desire aside, Lang’s American films had also begun to grow repetitive, with tales of femme fatales and wrong men shrinking in scale, ambition and budget from the man who made Metropolis. His While The City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both 1956) were the kind of bleak, schematic noirs that detractors (according to Jaques Rivette) tar his whole career with. By Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, in which a newspaperman asks himself a legal question about circumstantial evidence that ends up swallowing Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine in a statutory trap, Lang’s vision of the urban environment as a playground for manipulation, conspiracy and thwarted romance had swallowed him into academic parlour games. So Lang went to India to complete a project decades in the making.
Das indische Grabmal (1918) was Thea von Harbou’s epic novel, where the writer morphed her enthusiasm/fetishism of Indian culture into a ripping yarn about a German architect enlisted by the Maharaja Chandra of Eschnapur into building a gigantic tomb, only to discover that it is a monument intended to punish Chandra’s lover, Seetha, for her infidelity. Adapting it for the screen, von Harbou had partnered with Lang, who had intended to direct the film before being brushed aside for Joe May. The 1921 version is an artifact of Weimar production that displays a bizarre colonialist desire from a nation that had no colonies of its own, particularly after The Great War and the Treaty of Versailles.
Evidently Lang, who split from the Nazi-sympathising von Harbou in 1933, eventually felt he could have done it better. Lured back to Germany by Artur Brauner (who was attempting to rescue a flailing German Film Industry by offering appealing budgets and production oversight to those German filmmakers who had naturalised themselves in Hollywood – including Robert Sidiomak and Gottfried Reinhardt), Lang returned to the epic scale and length of his silent heyday with his two part reinvention of the von Harbou novel: The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (both 1959). A sweeping 3 ½ hour adventure shot on location in India (with interiors in West Berlin’s Spandau Studios), The Indian Epic, as the films came to be known, would appear to present a departure from Lang’s dissection of the angular nerve centres that make up the urban cityscape. DOP Richard Angst shoots in fauvist technicolor that gives each section of the frame a dramatically different palette through colored lenses. Ever the conspiracist, however, Lang cannot help but make the romantic triangle of his story the epicentre for vast intrigue that travels the entire subcontinent.
Despite location shooting, the entire cast is made up of German and American actors in brownface. While this is enough to make the modern viewer gulp, one cannot help but admire the sheer lengths and expense the crew would have gone through to make sure nobody on the Indian set was Indian. Even when making a story ostensibly about another, Lang cannot help but project the German vision of the place. The Tiger of Eschnapur opens with signs of life, a staged ethnography of camels, smiling under-nourished children, and desert-exotic vistas through which tradesmen travel. Brownface Indians catcall a woman in German, to which our architect hero Harold (Paul Hubschmid, like if Gregory Peck’s Mengele in The Boys From Brazil succeeded) responds by lifting the pair up and conking together their heads.
Langs humanism extends to other cultures, but only insofar as they are sexy. Lang casts American Debra Paget as Seetha, the temple dancer torn between her betrothal to Chandha and attraction to Harold, who fights a tiger and wins twice in the first 90 minutes. Her risque snake dance is probably The Indian Tomb’s most iconic image. Charming a snake (yep), she whips off a hood to reveal that just a few jewels cover her modesty, delivering an extended and distinctly European style dance that continues for several minutes before a hilarious cut to Chandra’s face, ogling. In the interests of not suggesting that an Indian woman would be the object of a proud German’s desire, Lang reveals Seetha to be Irish-Indian when she strums the folk song “The Night Paddy Murphy Died” on a banjira. With the small crumbs of personality afforded her, Paget actually does a decent job of communicating Seetha’s inner desires through glances and smaller gestures. Harold immediately attempts to save her from the fate of marriage to Chandra, offering to take her back to Germany, in an echo of Lang’s foray into Japanese culture, Harakiri (1919). But Sheetha feels connected to India and religion through her continued prayer to the statue of a busty, unnamed Godess (although she subconsciously links her prayer to Harold, by having him communicate to her through a platform in the temple visible if one looks up at the statue).
Lang connects his threads using talismanic objects. In House By A River, Lang’s effort at the Southern Gothic, villainous Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) embraces his wife and sees the hairbrush used by the maid he killed. Lang overlays a shot of a fish jumping from water over that brush, as though sparks have flown out from the object. Byrne jumps out of his skin. Lang’s humanism, seen by the tender embrace, is broken by the phantasmagoric properties of an object from the past. Like an inverse Proustian madeleine, it sends Byrne back to the darkest moment of his life, a moment he is trying to subjugate. Try as he might, his impulses emerge in the form of a story he writes, and in his bitter end, seeing the dead maid float on a curtain that billows in the wind. It strangles him.
In The Indian Tomb, one gloriously Langian moment finds Harold and Seetha on the lam and literally hidden from capture by a spider’s web, making her pray to a nearby statue of the buxom goddess. As ever, he asks who is watching over us? Lang’s engagement with spirituality in The Indian Epic gives his association of the souls of people with objects and animals a new clarity. When Harold and Seetha sit by a pond filled with lily pads, looking at their reflections in the water while considering their origins, one cannot help but remember the scene in You Only Live Once when Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney’s outlaw couple do much the same, even casting themselves as a pair of frogs. In The Tiger Of Eschnapur, those objects have a religious element which begs the question of who or what is controlling the strings up there. Labelling Harold a tiger, Seetha says ‘the other tiger is the other India.’ Harold clearly stands in for a globalised, colonial vision of the nation as a place you don’t even need to be from as long as you understand it. But Lang doesn’t define that which must be understood. Chandra sets up the film’s central conflict by countering, ‘Your people say make yourself at home. I doubt you could here, you’d need an Indian soul.’
Lang asks questions of representation that effectively exposes his ignorance, befitting of all that brown paint. Treacherous Chandra has invited Harold to design and build his tomb, ‘Made from the purest marble, the most precious jewels… jade, alabaster, turquoise, coral, emeralds and rubies. It will be the tomb of my beloved.’ In a meta-twist, Chandra has effectively ceded control of the nation’s image to an outsider. And Lang does impose his image. Harold is first tasked with charting the underground tunnels that connect Eschnapur, which Lang uses as an opportunity for him to come across sick lepers kept in a pit underground. The darkest elements of society kept beneath us by a malevolent leader. You know what they say, you can take the Lang out of the Mabuse etc.
Regardless, Lang’s filmmaking continues to connect animals, people, and buildings. The open question, ‘Where do birds fly? Where does the wind blow?’ is matched by Lang with a dissolve to the Palace and then to a statue of a peacock. Clearly birds (Seetha) fly home (to the palace/Indian excellence), the blowing winds being Lang’s camera and the audience POV as we move throughout his map. Lang gifts India, or at least, a cultural comprehension of India, to his audience. This is particularly clear at Harold’s reunion with Seetha, which has him search through the city streets for her (in the only scene that I observed containing actual Indian people, as extras wandering through a market), maneuvering the architecture. He becomes one with the space, and thus is led back to Seetha by her sister Bharani, both of them welcoming him as Indian.
Lang may have dressed his set up to look like India, but it’s sheer aesthetic. It is no more authentic than The Beatles’ own yogic ramblings. The Indian Epic is set out of time or space. It is a swashbuckling adventure, but where comparable epics like those of David Lean had some historical basis, von Harbau’s fiction is a mere imposition of her own impressions of a country she hadn’t visited. By The Indian Tomb’s climactic showdown between Harold and Chandra, Lang seems tired of the pretense. Their shirtless bodies are the same colour, Harold sweaty and tanned from the location shoot, Chandra’s brown makeup seeming to melt off. They look the same. For all of the film’s talky machinations, in its emotional climax Lang returns to his essence. Chandra stares at Seetha, and through her into the camera: spectacle achieved through silence.