Although the film was made in Germany in 1959, the racial attitudes in The Tiger of Eschnapur are those of 1859. It’s not just the ridiculous costumes and the fact that German actors ‘blacking up’ are considered to be the authentic and palatable alternative to employing actual Indian culture; it’s worse. First it’s the fact that in The Tiger of Eschnapur you will witness every cliché you know concerning the sub-continent; from the Indian Rope Trick to hosts of lepers; and then there’s the constant implication that India is some filthy den of crime and mystery, awaiting the taming influence of European manners.
Look no further than the scene when the lead, Paul Hubschmid (Johnny Vulkan in Funeral in Berlin, 1966) wrestles and defeats a tiger using only a flaming brand. Another character comments that it is like watching two Indias fighting each other, the old and the new. Of course, New India, as represented by the skinny German Imperialist, wins hands down. He makes fluff of the tiger.
Speaking of tigers, however, let’s pile some praise on to Fritz Lang for his special effects. The funny thing is that although his tigers in this 1959 movie are puppets, and stuffed fakes, intercut with TV-Tarzan style stock footage, they are bloody good; and I would take them over Gladiator’s CGI tigers any day of the week. But the best effect is reserved for the lepers.
Such then is the chilling scene when Paul Hubschmid enters a shadowy cave and awakens what can only be described as a horde of zombies. It is brilliant, terrifying and reminiscent of the cinema of the undead that we know today. A great man like Fritz Lang is always going to be ahead of his time, even if he is making B-Movie fare such as this, and his amazing prescience comes to the fore in shooting these zombies; they are just brilliant.
Claus Holm does not make an appearance until fairly late in The Tiger of Eschnapur, which seems strange until you realise you are watching only the first part of a two volume tale. Time to get depressed. This is in fact part one of Fritz Lang's Indian Epic; and the other half of it is The Indian Tomb (Das Indische Grabmal). Fritz Lang returned to Germany to direct these films, which tell the story of a German architect, the Indian Maharahaja for whom he is building a temple, and the Eurasian dancer providing great sex interest.
Lang's Indian epic is based on work he did forty years earlier, a silent called Das Indische Grabmal. He and Thea von Harbou co-wrote the screenplay, basing it on von Harbou's novel of the same name. Though Lang did not control the final form of that earlier version, it is venerated by cinema and Lang fans.
It seems wrong that a man like Lang should fail to make a good film, but regardless of the reputation of Das Indische Grabmal, these are not strong; the fact that they aim as high as the epic genre makes it worse.
Released in 1921, the original version of Das Indische Grabmal had a running time of 31⁄2 hours. For the remake, Lang divided the story into two parts that each run about 100 minutes; but other than the lepers and a sensational dance from Debra Paget (who played with Elvis Presley in his debut Love me Tender 1956); which is easily the highlight of this weird and quite lurid piece.