'The Tiger of Eschnapur': Film Review

Courtesy of Foundry Communications/American International Pictures (AIP)
A colorful, if dated, break from the stark B&W dramas for which Lang is revered.
9/27/2019

Fritz Lang's long-delayed Indian adventure is finally released stateside in its original form.

Long before Infinity War, It, and Kill Bill came Fritz Lang's "Indian Epic," a yarn the auteur saw as too grand to be contained in a single film. Based on a Thea von Harbou novel he originally helped adapt during the silent era (that film was made in 1921 by Joe May, with Richard Eichberg's version coming in 1938), the story follows a European engineer who takes a commission in India and promptly steals the heart of the woman his boss — the maharaja — wants for himself. Comparisons to revivalist adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark would make more sense if the two movies in this epic, 1958's The Tiger of Eschnapur and 1959's The Indian Tomb, featured actors with even a wisp of charisma, and if Lang's pacing, stately in these films, borrowed more from the lean crime pictures he made in Hollywood. But these are still much more than pre-retirement curiosities, and deserve to be seen in their original form — not as Journey to the Lost City, the slice-and-diced version, condensing both pics into one 95-minute feature, that distributors originally offered American moviegoers in 1960.

Let's note at the outset that some younger moviegoers may not be willing to suspend disbelief for a film where all the main Indian characters are played by German actors in brownface. Everyone speaks German, of course, except for American actress Debra Paget, who appears to be speaking English and having her lines dubbed by a German speaker.

These hurdles are in addition to the script's more general Orientalist and sexist foibles — all to be expected in a film of this era, but on one or two occasions, nearly impossible to ignore. (For instance: Paget's character is an orphan, raised by Indian priests to dance for the gods, who doesn't realize she's half-Irish until a white man she's just met explains it to her. "Look at your face in the water," he suggests. "Is that Indian?")

That white man is Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid), an engineer for a firm designing a complex of schools and hospitals for the imaginary Indian city of Eschnapur. Arriving in advance of the firm's architect, Berger promptly dazzles Paget's Seetha: He gallantly rescues her servant from men who harass her, then fends off a killer tiger when it attacks Seetha's palanquin.

Seetha is dreamy-eyed over the tall foreigner, but she has been brought here to entertain another: Maharaja Chandra (Walther Reyer) lost his wife some time ago, and when he sees Seetha dance in his temple, he watches with a raptness no one would mistake for religious feeling. But Chandra has spent time in Europe (Werner Jorg Luddecke's script makes much of this influence, and of the "intoxicating spell" India casts on Westerners), so he doesn't simply command the woman to become his new maharani: He moves her into the palace, but insists it's no golden cage; he means to earn her "admiration and respect" before winning her love.

Which is not to say Chandra believes in a level playing field. When he realizes that Berger is secretly paying visits to Seetha, he casts him angrily into a pit with that aforementioned tiger, giving him just a spear to fight for his life. This sets up a chain of events that will lead Berger and Seetha to flee into the desert, risking death while jealous factions in Eschnapur threaten Chandra's rule. Weary from thirst, they collapse, whereupon a title card makes the cliffhanger explicit: "For the miraculous rescue of the lovers, see the sequel," an adventure "even more grand" than this one. Luckily for that second film, Eschnapur has laid a foundation sturdy enough to earn the engineer's approval.

Production company: CCC Filmkunst
Distributor: Film Movement
Cast: Paul Hubschmid, Debra Paget, Walther Reyer, Rene Deltgen, Luciana Paluzzi, Jochen Blume, Jochen Brockmann
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenwriter: Werner Jorg Luddecke
Producer: Artur Brauner
Director of photography: Richard Angst
Production designers: Willi Schatz, Helmut Nentwig
Costume designers: Claudia Herberg, Gunter Brosda
Editor: Walter Wischniewsky
Composer: Michel Michelet

In German
101 minutes