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TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR, THE (Der Tiger Von Eschnapur)(director: Fritz Lang; screenwriters: from the novel by Thea von Harbou/Werner Jörg Lüddecke; cinematographer: Richard Angst; editor: Walter Wischniewsky; music: Gerhard Becker/Michel Michelet; cast: Debra Paget (Seetha), Paul Hubschmid (Harald Berger), Walter Reyer (Chandra), Claus Holm (Dr. Walter Rhode); Sabine Bethmann (Irene Rhode), René Deltgen (Prince Ramigani), Jochen Blume (Asagara), Luciana Paluzzi (Baharani, Seetha’s servant), Valéry Inkijinoff (Yama), Jochen Brockmann (Padhu); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Arthur Brauner; Fantoma; 1959-West Germany/USA-English dubbed version)
“Work of great imagination.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Tiger of Eschnapur is the first part of a two-part epic escapist adventure film that was previously released in the United States in 1959 in the severely edited 94-minute single film entitled Journey to the Lost City–reducing it to look like a B-film. Thankfully Fantoma presents this two-disc child-like fairy tale and adult nightmare in this brilliantly restored version that reflects the full powers of the keen visual beauty director Fritz Lang (“Dr. Mabuse the Gambler”/ “Fury”/”Clash By Night”) brings to the screen in this work of great imagination and integrity to the filmmaker’s longtime visions of pure cinema. It marks the seventysomething Lang’s successful return to his native Germany after more than two decades exile in America. Though some critics were not impressed with what they took to be merely a kitschy comic-book film.

The Tiger of Eschnapur was based on Lang’s Nazi ex-wife Thea von Harbou’s novel, that they thought beneath the legendary filmmaker and failed to see the hidden depth that Lang provided in his myths, troubled romances and astute perceptions on Eastern religion and modern science. To miss that and the fragile beauty of the unreal world created by Lang, not to forget the breathtaking location shots in India and serial chapter cliffhanger suspense and hearty performances of the mostly German cast with brown makeup to appear like they were natives, is to default on having a truly fantastic film experience.

Chandra (Walther Reyer) is the despotic widowed maharaja of Eschnapur who fell in love with the beautiful temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) while seeing her perform in Benares and has invited her to be the temple dancer in his palace while also offering her his love. Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) is the European architect Chandra admired when visiting Austria and has invited him to build modern schools and hospitals for Eschnapur. Traveling from a remote village to Eschnapur, Harry accompanies Seetha and her servant Baharani (Luciana Paluzzi, who played James Bond bad women in Thunderball) when word gets out that a man-eating tiger is on the prowl. When the tiger attacks Seetha’s carriage in the forest, her soldier escorts desert but Harry bravely drives the tiger off with a lit branch. This impresses Seetha and the two fall in love, as she thinks Siva approves of her savior.

Back in the palace, Harry as a foreigner is forbidden to enter the temple but nevertheless sneaks a peek at the sexy dance Seetha is performing in front of a giant statue of Siva for the solemn anti-foreigner spouting priest Yama (Valéry Inkijinoff) and his minions. Harry realizes that something evil is going on in the palace. He doesn’t know that the scheming Prince Ramigani (René Deltgen), the brother of Chandra, is plotting to overthrow his sibling and to do it by proving his brother has defied the gods and is too venal to rule by chasing after an unchaste Seetha. But Harry does know that the lovers are trapped in the palace as prisoners, just as the bird is in the gold cage of Seetha’s bedroom. When Harry is spotted by the vengeful Chandra visiting Seetha in her palace apartment to plan their elopement, he’s forced to fight a tiger in the pit to live for another day. When Harry bests the tiger, he daringly flees with Seetha through a secret passage in the temple. But they are chased by Ramigani and his cavalry, and when their horses are too lame to go further the two collapse in the desert after a sandstorm.

Irene (Sabine Bethmann), Harry’s concerned sister, and her husband Walter Rhode (Claus Holm), the architect partner of Harry’s in charge of the building project, arrive early in Eschnapur on the urgings of Asagara’s (Jochen Blume) visit to them in Calcutta. Asagara was asked by the maharaja to be Harry’s assistant since he studied architecture in Europe, and since the two worked well together they have become friends. At Eschnapur the Rhodes are startled to find that Harry went on a tiger hunt without leaving word–especially since he’s not a hunter and was expecting them. Asagara tells Harry’s relatives he will try to help them secure answers to Harry’s whereabouts if it means not going against his ruler, while the suspicious Walter is asked by Chandra to make building a great tomb a priority ahead of the building projects.

The critics objected to Lang’s film as high camp and to the poor quality of his special effects. In this regard the modern day filmmakers all put Lang to shame, as there’s little doubt that the special effects for the tiger looked phony and the CGI special effects of the moderns has come a long way in making their films more advanced in technology. However what Lang does best that perhaps only a few other special modern filmmakers can come close to emulating, is that he takes his myths and his powerful images seriously and will not use them to induce cheap tricks or shortcuts to good storytelling. Thereby his stunning photography and his ability to show with force the sinister nature of power and how illusionary it is, allow his mythic adventure story to be a strikingly momentous one of a kind intelligent meditation on his envisioned hermetic world. For Lang, the pure filmmaker, a believer that films are first-off meant to be visual testaments to the arts and is at all times a visionary art form–it makes little difference that his The Tiger of Eschnapur appears on the surface to be such a simplistic tale, when underneath its glossy external beauty there unfolds a dark world that powers everything that people have always been conflicted about and makes the temporal world appear so illusionary and unfulfilling.

REVIEWED ON 12/18/2008 GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”