Fritz Lang’s Indian Epics (and thunderous thighs)

November 29, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

She's about as Indian as Emily Blunt, but who cares?

Fritz Lang’s Indian Epics – Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (1959) – have been a point of fascination since I bought Lotte Eisner’s lengthy tome on Lang’s career as director.

See, whenever you investigate a director’s C.V., inevitably you’ll find more than just movies you’ve never heard nor seen, but something sort of classifiable as forbidden fruit: movies that just don’t exist anywhere because of distribution issues, language issues, or outright apathy on the part of its owners.

Joseph Losey’s 1951 remake of M, for example, is available nowhere, except as a disc sourced from a British print that may have come from TV but never appeared anywhere in North America. At this stage the movie’s probably in the public domain, but prints seem to have vanished, so its official forbidden fruit [aka verboten und verschmissen und absolut neine obst!].

Lang’s Indian epics are a little different. Based on a script he co-concocted with former wife / emerging Nazi Thea von Harbou in 1921, the film was first made by Joe May, and later in 1938 during the Third Reich, after which it reappeared as a blazing Technicolor pulp epic.

Both the ’21 film [M] and the ’59 version [M] were issued in two parts, whereas the ’38 version was shot with separate French and German actors, a not uncommon tactic even though dual language versions were a leftover from the early sound era when it was easier to shoot dual cast versions instead of doing a major redub sourced from the same master edit.

An early example of dual language version in America was Fox’s superb The Big Trail (1930), whereas in Europe we have The Tunnel – the latter shot in German + French (1933) and English (1935) versions. With rare exceptions – dual French / German Bluebeard (1951), dual English / German The Moon is Blue (1953) – it’s an outmoded practice, certainly if it involves a wholly new set of cast members, but not rare if the actors are bilingual, as was the case with Polytechnique (2009).

Lang’ Indian epics were, however, another classic European co-production with German, French, and Italian money, so the film was released in multiple languages with a sort-of international cast (Luciana Paluzzi represented la bella Italia) while American Debra Paget was the headliner for the U.S. market.

Unfortunately for Paget (The River’s Edge), the English version was released in North America via American International Pictures, and typical of the exploitation outfit, the movie was hacked down from 2 parts to one 90-odd minute film, which flattered no one. The abomination was released as Journey to the Lost City in 1960.

Seeing even the butchered version wasn’t easy (and still isn’t, as it’s completely vanished from distribution), but there was one little catch astute Ontarians and Quebecois were aware of: TFO, aka La chaine francaise, TVOntario’s French-language channel, which often featured rare European films either dubbed or subtitled in French.

If you didn’t know French, well, you were screwed; mais si vous savaient la langue, c’estait pas une probleme.

Ergo, I waited until one day Lang’s pulpy epic emerged in French, and had some fun watching this forbidden fruit featuring Paget doing not one but two very forbidden dances with very little wardrobe. The film was a bit creaky, but it was uncut, and I taped on SVHS in SP figuring in would vanish, not knowing it would be repeated several times over the next few years because, well, c’estait Lang!

Fantomas eventually released the films on DVD in English, but they were older non-anamorphic prints, and the DVDs are now fully OOP in Region 1 land. Flash-forward to 2012 and the Indian Expressionism series at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and voila, we have not only the two films on the big screen, but Joe May’s 1921 version as well.

I’ve uploaded a review of the ’59 version to accommodate the prior review for May’s first version, but here are some quick thoughts based on the two screenings.

Although I didn’t attend the May films, from conversations with attendees I gleaned the film was a longer version with slightly wonky electronic subtitles likely applied to scenes matching those on the Image DVD. The print was a good source, but there was no sound except the shifting of audience legs & posteriors.

The Lang films were also nice 35mm prints, which startled those who caught a beat-up 16mm print screening 10 years ago at the old Cinematheque. Kudos to the Lightbox and the series curator who managed to get crisp Technicolor prints from the German film archive. What this means: you too can program these films because they exist on film.

The audience enjoyed Lang’s diptych with all its hokum and stereotypes and pulpy nonsense, but here’s one final thought regarding the curator’s pre-screening intro: Paget wasn’t a Z-level actress, but a modest name on the Fox talent roster during the fifties, and as audiences quickly recognized, she danced quite well in the Lang films – a skill she undoubtedly learned under studio contract, and exploited in fluffy family fodder like Belles on Their Toes (1952), where she bounces in every single scene like a human beach ball of joy.

Of the main actresses in the film, Paluzzi (netter known as the red-headed,  spy-killing bitch in Thunderball) in brownface looks silly (but she has a memorable ‘exit scene’); German thespian Sabine Bethmann is utterly wooden in a role diluted from the original ’21 film; and Paget, while playing another pretty victim role, was quite good muttering quasi-mystical Indian dialogue (as envisioned by Germans transfixed with Indian myth instead of reality) and flexing a frankly amazing set of thighs and taut tummy to please a giant rubber snake.

There’s no way Sabine could’ve pulled that off.

No. Way.

Coming shortly: smut in the form of Tinto Brass’ Cheeky! on Blu-ray (Cult Epics), Walter Boos starts losing his special touch for erotisches unsinn und quatsch in Schoolgirl Report #9 (Impulse Pictures), and Salvatore Samperi’s Fotografando Patrizia / aka The Dark Side of Love (One 7 Movies) with sumptuous cinematography by Dante Spinotti.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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