Monday, 18 April 2011

Fritz Lang's Indian Epic: Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1959) DVD Review

The beautiful dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) in Fritz Lang's Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1959)

Fritz Lang's Indian Epic is a two-part spectacular being released by Masters of Cinema on April 18th. Based on Thea von Harbou's novel 'Das Indische Grabmal' (previously filmed in 1921 by Joe May) the Indian Epic signaled Lang's return to Germany after an extensive period in Hollywood. He had lived in India for a number of years previously and decided to make his next-to-last films (The Thousand Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse, 1960, was his final work) there. The films were conceived and produced as a singular vision; one story split into two, intended to be viewed over two nights. In 1960 US distributors edited the two films down into one feature (running 94 minutes) and called it The Tiger Of Bengal (1960), much to Lang's disappointment. Here the films are returned to their glory and released on two separate discs to be watched over two nights. Although I am reviewing them separately in regards to the way Lang wanted them to be viewed, the two films do constitute one singular 200-minute work. The majestic Indian Epic...

One of the recurrently impressive features of Fritz Lang's cinema is his eye for architecture. Recall the Art Deco cityscape in Metropolis (1927), a towering utopia of authoritarian corruption, or the medieval landscape in his astonishing fantasy work Die Nibelungen (1924). And think of the attention to detail in Metropolis especially - the carved statues, epic staircases and Moloch machines. Der Tiger von Eschnapur is every bit as impressive as those past and future worlds, and its rich colour palette marks it as Lang's most striking and evocative work (establishing shots of the Maharajah's Lake Palace are breathtaking). There are other similarities between Der Tiger and Metropolis too - not least in the labyrinth-like caverns under the city which hold unwanted citizens, kept secret by the wealthy empire above; in Metropolis they are workers, here they are lepers. There are also religious similarities and interests. The massive tower at the center of Metropolis is called The New Tower Of Babel, of course referencing the story of the origin of language in the Book Of Genesis. Religion is more prominent, as opposed to subtextual, in Der Tiger though - the Maharaja and his people pray to a statue of their god and no foreigners can be allowed into temple.

But this is a film which deserves to be judged by its own merits. Opulent, palatial and in the classical mould of spectacle cinema, Der Tiger is a ravishing melodrama of romance and adventure. It has just about everything you could want from a cinematic epic but manages to sidestep all of the problems that usually associate themselves with four-hour extraordinaries. There is more than enough plot to support the extended running time and the film moves at a firecracker pace; barely a minute goes by without bubbling emotion or grand set-pieces, including two tiger fights (it matters little that real tigers are replaced by models and men in suits for close-ups). Although there's plenty of exposition the film never really flags up its plot points and it all unfolds quite naturally. The plot never feels too contrived either, and not once does it fall into false sentiment or saccharine condescension. Sure, some of the dialogue is ripe ("I shall bury my love in that tomb") but that's what you want from this kind of cinema - sweeping majesty and hearts worn on sleeves. The cinematography by Richard Angst is also stunning and perfectly captures the exaggerated feeling of the piece, in terms of painterly composition recalling the grand Technicolour landscape in Fleming's Gone With The Wind (1939), itself a melodrama which informs emotion through design.

There are minor problems, the most significant of which is the puzzle of why everyone is speaking in German, but that never really gets in the way. What really matters, as with all of these kinds of films, is the spectacle. Packed with romance, action and humour, Der Tiger also features some solid performances, especially from Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid, and is an all-round success. I never thought I'd see another Lang film which beat the magnificent Metropolis, one of my all-time favorite films. On it's own terms Der Tiger isn't quite that good, but paired with Das Indische Grabmal it's even better...

The Disc/Extras
The film, presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, looks stunning. The remaster has next to no grain and really serves Angst's photography; the lush colour palette is completely absorbing. And on a 5.1 Surround Sound System the score by Michel Michelet sounds amazing, perhaps clearer than it has ever been. The disc for Der Tiger holds the most extras, the best of which is an audio commentary by film scholar David Kalat, which is an interesting and entertaining essay on the film. Also included is a 21-minute documentary filmed in Germany in 2005 featuring all new interviews with producer Artur Brauner (who at one point refers to Debra Paget as being "more erotic than Marilyn Monroe") and actress Sabine Bethmann, who plays Harald's sister Irene. This documentary also highlights the mastery of the set designers, who built the tiger pit at a studio in Germany. You'd never know. Alongside the original French trailer, where the film is referred to as 'Le Tigre De Bengale', there is some brief 8mm footage shot by Bethmann on location in 1958. An interesting look into the real India and what the cast/crew got up to on days off, it's an amusing little document and rounds off the first disc nicely. As with all MoC releases there is also an accompanying booklet, which will be discussed in more detail in the review for Das Indische Grabmal.

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