#22 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Fritz Lang was done with Hollywood, and he took an offer from the German film producer Artur Brauner to make a film with German money in India based on a script Lang and his ex-wife Thea von Harbou had written for the 1920 silent version of the same story (she died in 1954, a few years before this adaptation began production). Lang didn’t often use color photography, but it seems inevitable that he would use it here, much like the embrace of colors in other India-set tales by people like David Lean, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and even Steven Spielberg. It’s also a complete throwback to the kinds of movies that Lang was making early in his German career (he was originally supposed to direct the silent version of the story before the task went to Joe May), eschewing any kind of serious take on justice, destiny, or man’s relationship with technology in favor of straight adventure. In that regard, it’s one of the better examples from Lang’s filmography, even if it’s really just the first half of a story.
The Maharaja of Eschnapur, Chandra (Walter Reyer), has called two people to his palace. The first is the German architect Harold Berger (Paul Hubschmid), brought to build hospitals along with his brother-in-law, bringing a certain Western influence to the Indian city, inspired by the Maharaja’s time in Europe after the death of his wife. The other is the dancer Seetha (Debra Paget), brought from a southern province to dance for the goddess (the goddess is never named), a thin pretext for Chandra to see if he wants to marry her. They end up going to Eschnapur together, and Harold saves Seetha from the eponymous tiger, kindling love between the two. The overall conflict between our three main characters is obvious from early on.
Another way that this feels like a callback to Lang’s earliest movies is that this is the first film of his since Woman in the Moon where there are significant, ornate sets, the kind that had reached their zenith with Metropolis. The centerpiece of that in this film is the underground temple, a large open space with a huge statue of the goddess looming over it. It’s here where Seetha does her dance with Chandra watching, lusting over every motion, a place where outsiders are forbidden. At the same time, Berger is following a series of underground Mongol tunnels underneath the palace and discovers a secret entrance into the temple. It’s all an effort to draw them together in a shared sense of danger since she is the only one to see him. At the same time, there’s a good bit of palace intrigue around Chandra’s older brother Ramigani (Rene Deltgen) that doesn’t do a whole lot in this film but feels like it’s going to end up playing a more important role in the sequel.
There’s no denying the love between Harold and Seetha, especially when Harold proves to her that her father was European (her blue eyes are a big giveaway). Seetha feels like a bird in a cage, and there’s an inevitable effort to get her out. There are fun adventure elements like Harold being fed to tigers but managing to win his way out, creeping through underground tunnels, and a chase through the Indian countryside. Being a Fritz Lang film, it’s all cleanly and well-filmed.
One of the weirder things about the film is that every speaking part is German (except Paget who is American) and all of the background characters are actually Indian. The exteriors were filmed in India, so actual Indians are often seen which clash pretty obviously with the more Teutonic speaking parts that obviously look like white people in brown face. I don’t have a moral objection to it, but it does mess with the verisimilitude of the film. It’s just kind of jarring to see all the way through.
Lang was later dismissive of the film, equating it to sugar, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. Yes, Lang had been aiming for more “serious” fare ever since M in 1931, but there’s nothing wrong with simpler entertainments. He does that well here, painting a colorful portrait of India while giving us a likeable lead in Berger, a pretty lead in Seetha, and a complex enough set of emotional motives to pit people against each other convincingly. It was also, apparently, one of the inspirations for the creation of Indiana Jones (Berger wears a tuxedo that looks exactly like the one Harrison Ford wore in The Temple of Doom, probably not coincidentally the India set adventure).
This is obviously Lang not making the kinds of movies he wanted to make, only the ones he could. It’s also the kind of adventure that he probably should have started making in Hollywood when he first showed up in the 30s, securing a potential reputation for financial success before pushing his more serious films in an industry he didn’t know. He was good at making these movies, though, and that’s really not something he should have run from for so long.