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Tiger of Eschnapur, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not as Indian an epic as it could have been."
3 stars

The full-circle aspect of Fritz Lang's career is kind of fascinating: After a career that started in German silents and took him to France and then Hollywood as he fled Nazi Germany, he would return to Europe in the late 1950s for three final films which all tied back to the early days of his career, relaunching the "Dr. Mabuse" franchise and finally adapting a novel by former wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou that they had intended to make in the 1920s. The result is not necessarily worth waiting thirty-odd years for, but it is interesting for how it straddles the two eras.

It opens with architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) on his way to the Indian city of the title, where Maharajah Chandra (Walther Reyer) has hired the German architect to help with an ambitious program of building schools and hospitals. A man-eating tiger stalks the road, and when Harald saves dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) and her servant Bharani (Luciana Paluzzi) from its attack, the smitten Seetha says she has never imagined two tigers fighting over her. But Chandra also has his eye on Seetha, blinding him to the ambitions of his brother Ramigani (René Deltgen) and others who think Chandra has absorbed too many European ideas.

Though the film was partially shot in India, there are not any actual non-Caucasians credited, and it's probably damning with the faintest praise to point out that the film isn't the worst-case scenario of Lang adapting a novel about adventure in exotic Asia written by his ex-wife who stayed behind in Germany because she was a member of the Nazi party (albeit one secretly married to Indian writer Ayi Tendulkar). There is inevitably a large portion of the cast in brownface, although the application can be peculiar at times (one scene seems to cut between Debra Paget variously in light makeup, heavy makeup, and a skinsuit), and while there's not a perfect correlation between a character's goodness and European ancestry/education, the r-squared is pretty darn high. As "products of their time" go, this movie certainly could be worse, but it could also be a whole lot better, even before we start talking about how its lepers are basically zombies.

It could also generally be more exciting. The Tiger of Eschnapur is the first half of a two-film "epic", so it can be forgiven for spending a lot of time moving pieces in its place and working toward a cliffhanger rather than a resolution, but there are long stretches once Harald arrives at the palace that he doesn't have much of a chance to be the tiger he's occasionally shown to be. At times, it doesn't seem like Lang and actor Paul Hubschmid ever decided whether he should be a swashbuckling type or not; Hubschmid moves easily enough when it's time for Harald to spring into action, but often has a hard time giving Harald a personality when there's not immediate danger. He's blandly affable, which at least is better than Walther Reyer, René Deltgen, Jochen Blume and the rest playing Indian men manage most of the time as they mostly play "foreign but not too foreign" until it's time to be ruthless.

Debra Paget is in the same boat - she gets to be smitten and occasionally nervous about what her own history may contain as Seetha, but she's mostly there to show plenty of leg, threading the needle between thinking nothing of exposing her body while still being an innocent young woman, and do a dance that I suspect has very little to do with traditional Indian forms. She's twenty-five and much closer to the end of her film career than the beginning, able to play this sort of ingenue in her sleep and not particularly inspired by doing it in German. She's got the most to do, but that isn't much.

Still, it's worth watching how Lang and company put the movie together visually - he uses the same squarish Academy ratio he used in the silent era even though this sort of movie was starting to be made in CinemaScope by then, and the high ceiling letting him create pits and antechambers dominated by large (and unsettlingly curvy) statues. Most of us can only imagine it on an old movie palace's screen with the human-sized characters dwarfed by their surroundings, most notably in a surreal scene where Harald walks through vast, empty spaces, unseen forces herding him toward a pit filled with hungry tigers.

It's a climax that doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense, or completely work. On the other hand, it's so much more like Lang's early films, where pulp adventure hadn't yet differentiated from art-house surrealism, than the Technicolor epics Hollywood was cranking out at the time as to be fascinating. It is, at the very least, good and interesting enough to stick around for the second part that would follow quickly on its heels.

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originally posted: 04/08/20 03:43:21
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4/08/20 Honor Whitelow This film was put together well with an interesting story line 4 stars
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  DVD: 16-Oct-2001



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