MARCH IS GERMAN CINEMA MONTH
Dream of dreams – the complete 203-minute edition of Fritz Lang’s legendary 1958 INDIAN EPIC has become available in a new dazzling two-disc Blu-Ray edition, thanks to the splendid gang at Film Movement Classics, in association with BETA.
The story of the movie’s history, like so much celluloid lore, is often as intriguing as the subject itself.
THE INDIAN EPIC began in the late 1950s when the iconic director, understandably pissed by the response and distribution of his final Hollywood effort (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, shunned then, but now acknowledged as a key film noir classic), decided to return to his native Germany – a land he had fled more than a quarter of a century before (and for obvious reasons). The idea of filming a complete version of this sprawling tale would be a major undertaking from no less than two companies (CCC Film, Gloria Film) and three countries (Germany, France, and Italy). It would be filmed on-location in India with a smattering of international (but mostly German) players – a necessary (then) pitch to guarantee worldwide distribution. Expert finagling and expense would be intertwined to produce this ultra-adventure odyssey with bargaining/funding providing the necessary realistic décor, horses, elephants, camels, tigers, plus tons of human extras, costumes, and grizzly cliffhanging special effects.
Lang was a natural to helm this massive project, as he at one time was married to its author, the noted and often infamous Thea von Harbou. Her novel, The Indian Tomb had already been filmed twice before in Germany, once as a silent (in 1921, with Conrad Veidt) and later as a Nazi propaganda tool (1938), akin to the Reichstag’s 1943 anti-Semitic version of Titanic. Lang had long wanted to present his ex-lover’s tale on film, and now he had the chance. And to do it his way. As with his famed Die Niberlungen, in 1924, THE INDIAN EPIC would be unveiled in two feature-length parts: The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb.
The catalyst for the thrilling exploits of its hero would not be (as in, let’s say, Republic serials) a great treasure – but sex. And what sex! Content and presentation combined, one can almost hear the ghost of von Stroheim weeping with joy,
On the surface, the movie resembles another earlier Lang effort, 1919’s The Spiders (also presented in two parts). This had an adventurer doing his derring-do all over the world, and, most unusually for the period, doing it in a total 230-minute running time (from when most features, Griffith “specials” aside, ran about an hour).
THE INDIAN EPIC takes place around the time of The Spiders, perhaps a few years earlier, so unlike Lang’s original vision to do it as a contemporary adult adventure, it would now be a period piece.
The saga opens with dashing architect/engineer Harald Berger journeying from Germany to Eschnapur to help progressive young Maharajah Chandra build schools and hospitals for the nation’s populace. Berger is immediately warned of a vicious tiger, who has been terrorizing villagers (indeed, within the first ten minutes, a child is eaten). He is also informed that he will be accompanying the celebrated dancing beauty Seetha to the palace. She had bewitched the recently widowed ruler, and he is now hopelessly in love with her. This politically has ramifications, as the ruler’s psychotic former brother-in-law, Padhu, is insulted and conspires with Chandra’s evil sibling, Ramigani to steal the throne and ravish the woman.
En route, the caravan encounters the tiger, and Berger saves Seetha from the beast, falling head over heels in love with her himself; added dilemma, she now is enthralled with her savior.
Trying to “do the right thing” becomes a bit of a chore, and soon the newly treasured friendship between Berger and Chandra goes on the rocks, as does the Maharajah’s addiction to Seetha. He orders the lovers tortured and executed, but they make their escape.
This is concurrent to the arrival of Berger’s drop-dead gorgeous sister Irene and her husband Walter, Harald’s business partner. Chandra orders the wary Walter to create a spectacular tomb for Seetha, who will be killed when she is recaptured.
And that’s Part One, folks!
Part Two is even more frenetic and action-packed with wall-to-wall hairbreadth escapes, lethal encounters, mysticism, and erotic imagery. Aside from aforementioned tiger attacks, there are high-tail flights on horseback, foreboding secret passageways, torture chambers, sacrificial altars, hidden crypts of insane homicidal lepers, crocodile infestations, super web-spinning spiders, poisonous monster snakes, flooded underground chambers, deathly trap doors, plus the usual prerequisite stabbings, gougings, and stranglings to dress up the relentless treachery, forbidden lust, murder and mayhem.
But none of the studio-created phantasmagoria can compare to the greatest special effect in the pic – the movie’s star, Hollywood import Debra Paget. While Denver-born, the actress had a definite exotic vibe about her that often had the dancer/singer/starlet cast as Indians, island natives, and alluring swarthy females (yet, she could also do 100% white bread). She’s perfect in this movie – perhaps her finest work. Having been essentially tossed aside by her studio (20th Century-Fox), Paget was a spectacular victim of bad timing; mind-blowingly stunning in musicals, she arrived when the genre was winding down. Her best year, 1956, had her cast opposite Elvis in his first movie (Love Me Tender) and as Lilia, the sacrificial bonbon in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. No doubt, it was these two titles (specifically, the latter) that prompted Lang to offer her the lead. Paget’s dancing prowess proved to be a prime asset, although her twisting, turning and gyrating is less of an authentic Indian ceremony than it is the type of performance that closed down most carnivals in small town America. Truly, I have never seen anything like her cobra dance in this movie. Paget, the holder of my occasionally dubbed herald: “ridiculously beautiful” (as in, no one REALLY looks like that) is possibly in THE INDIAN EPIC (especially The Indian Tomb) one of the most seductive women ever photographed on film. Practically naked, her endless twerking for once lives up to a movie’s hype about a tempting, luscious beauty that no man can resist. No fooling, the earlier alluded to dance sequence alone could easily bankrupt any pharmaceutical house hawking viagra. The actress’ outstanding physical presence prompted literally thousands of couples to christen their Boomer daughters after her – some of them becoming famous, either as Debra (Winger) or Paget (Brewster).
Truth be told, Lang’s celebration of Paget could be yet another (at least partial) success in fulfilling his desired directorial bucket list. Back in 1922, he hired the darling of German Weimar decadence, the wickedly amoral Anita Berber to dance in his crime thriller Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. His request that she perform totally nude was answered nonchalantly by the woman with the question: “Pubic hair, yes or no?” The sequence was shot, and promptly edited to a couple of shots only seconds long. Berber’s AC/DC/anything-for-pleasure persona was hijacked by Marlene Dietrich, who idolized the entertainer. The Deutsche siren couldn’t really object, as by 1928 she was, not surprisingly, dead, her short life silenced by an over-abundance of 24/7 partying.
THE INDIAN EPIC’s male lead is of less interest. Wayyyyy less. Paul Hubschmid had been around for nearly a decade, even attempting to crash Hollywood in the early Fifties as “Paul Christian,” where he was best known as the star of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Despite speaking flawless English, this gig fizzled, and he returned to Germany, infrequently returning to Anglo roles in Funeral in Berlin (1967) and Skullduggery (1970). According to all accounts, he wasn’t the nicest guy; certainly, there isn’t that much any incendiary chemistry between him and Paget. She seems more comfortable with the second male lead, the hero/villain Chandra (Walther Reyer, who gives the best performance in the movie). Other thesps worth mentioning include Sabine Bethmann (as Irene), Claus Holm (as Walter), Rene Deltgen (Ramigani), Jochen Brockmann (Padhu), Valery Inkijinoff, Richard Lauffen, Jochen Blume, and, as Seetha’s lovely servant, future Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi.
Lang gets marvelous help via the fantastic set designers and art directors (Helmut Nentwig, Willy Schatz), and scriptwriters Richard Eichberg and Werner Jorg Luddecke (with Lang himself making several uncredited additions) but, most notably, from the marvelous d.p. Richard Angst (who shot the lush, sensational color visuals in old school 1.37:1 – an homage to UFA-era Lang); another added perk, the European prints were in Technicolor. A lovely but often thunderous score by Gerhard Becker is another plus.
I should mention that because of the movie’s length, no major Hollywood distributor would touch it. Enter AIP, who cut the nearly three-and-a-half hour epic to 96 minutes, chopped the top and bottom of the frame off to hype the pic in “ColorScope,” had inferior Eastmancolor prints struck, dubbed it into English (with Paul Hubschmid once again becoming “Christian”), and released it into drive-ins and nabe hardtops in 1960 as Journey to the Lost City. This butchery (up till now) has been the only version available to Anglo Lang enthusiasts. Again, God bless Film Movement!
A number fantastic extras append this two-disc release, including audio commentaries by David Kalat, a wonderful booklet by my old professor Tom Gunning, and two documentaries, one on the flick itself, and another by Mark Rappaport, essentially a love letter to Paget (and who can blame him), featuring a plethora of excellent clips.
WARNING: don’t believe the bullshit about how this classic prefigures the Indiana Jones flicks. This isn’t silly, kiddie serial mishegas. I nonetheless accept the comparisons ONLY because they may have helped finance the restoration. Trust me, this is first-rate thrilling, sexy movie-making by one of cinema’s all-time geniuses.
THE INDIAN EPIC: The Tiger of Eschnapur (101 minutes) and The Indian Tomb (102 minutes). Color. Full frame [1.37:1]; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA (German w/English subtitles). Film Movement Classics/BETA. SRP: $49.95.