Monday, 18 April 2011

Fritz Lang's Indian Epic: Das Indische Grabmal (1959) DVD Review

The adventure continues in Fritz Lang's epic masterpiece Das Indische Grabmal (1959)

Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1959) ends on a cliffhanger which sees our doomed lovers Harald (Paul Hubschmid) and Seetha (Debra Paget) stranded in the desert and hopelessly reaching for each others touch... a sandstorm is brewing and the Maharajah's horsemen are fast on their trail. After recapping the events of the first film Das Indische Grabmal picks up exactly where we left off. A group of travellers discover the couple and find their hearts still beating. Taken to the travellers village to recover Harald and Seetha think they have escaped, but a traitor alerts the horsemen to their location. Back at the Maharajah's palace Harald's sister Irene (Sabine Bethmann) and his business partner Walter (Claus Holm) become suspicious of his whereabouts after they're told he's on a tiger hunt. They begin digging for information just as Harald is supposedly killed in a conflict with the horsemen...

There's very little to say for Das Indische Grabmal that hasn't already been said in my review of Der Tiger - they are a complete vision after all, split into two parts. The architecture is stunning, the Technicolour landscapes opulent and absorbing, the melodrama pitch-perfect and the adventure unrelenting. This is true spectacle cinema, and the second half is just as accomplished as the first. The religious aspects are more present in this entry though. While running from the horsemen Harald and Seetha duck for cover in an abandoned cave. Within its walls is a monument of the god Shiva, to which Seetha makes an offering and prays for safety. At that moment a spider descends from the foot of the cave and begins to weave its web. Just as in the classic bible story a web is weaved over the entrance to the cave and the horsemen move past it, concluding that nobody could have got inside without breaking the delicate silk. It's a peculiar little sequence, possibly a miracle but more suggestive of an actual spiritual presence in the film. Does Lang's epic embrace god? It's hard to say, but the scene is certainly exciting.

It's also a surprisingly provocative work, with an early fight sequence finding blood dripping from Harald's sword as he dispatches several of the Maharajah's men. Later in the film Seetha dances in front of the temple goddess in order to be judged, and she does so in jewelry encrusted underwear which reveals more flesh than I can ever remember seeing onscreen in this period - and the dance is titillating to say the least. It's quite a beautiful set-piece though. The temple, softly shaded in pastel-like greens and blues, with incense forming a delicate mist around the towering goddess statue, is one of the most impressive environments in the entire epic, and Lang's camera freely explores the choreography of Seetha's dance. Richard Angst returns as DoP for this picture and does a great job of capturing the beauty of India. As I said in my review of Der Tiger, on its own Das Indische Grabmal isn't quite a perfect work, but when paired together they're a masterpiece.

The Disc/Extras
Once again the image is pretty amazing, with colour being served especially well by the remaster. On the disc there's another interesting commentary by David Kalat, and another French trailer, this time retitled Le Tombeau Hindou. The accompanying booklet features a 20-page essay by Tom Gunning called 'The Indian Tomb Of The Dinosaur Of Eschnapur', and it argues both for the kitsch, campish value of the epic but also the way this masterpiece fits into Lang's oeuvre, taking in the themes of doomed lovers and architecture, and referencing films from Die Nibelungen (1924) to You Only Live Once (1937). It's a very fair essay and very well argued. The film is certainly more than just lush colours, and Gunning makes a compelling and intellectual argument for its reappraisal. There are also some fascinating interview excerpts with Lang in which he discusses the Indian Epic, working in America coming back to the post-WWII Germany he had come to hate. Alongside testimonials by Paul Hubschmid, Richard Angst and Helmut Nentwig there are also some stunning black and white photographs. Basically, an essential purchase.

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