I spent Saturday at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), watching three movies I’d never seen before.
Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic
The day started with two Fritz Lang action flicks, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. These are two movies the way Kill Bill are two movies. It’s one story, with the first movie ending with a cliffhanger and a promise that Part II will come soon (both films opened in 1959). Over the years, the two movies became known as Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic, even though the two together don’t make an epic – just a very long, extremely simplistic movie.
A German engineer working in India (Paul Hubschmid) and a beautiful dancer (Debra Paget) fall in love. But an evil maharajah wants the dancer for himself. From that point on, it’s just one cliffhanger after another as the lovers run away, become separated, are thrown into dungeons, and so on. The engineer’s sister and her husband step in occasionally to help and get into trouble, as well. In the films’ highpoint, Paget shows almost all her skin as she dances with a laughably fake cobra puppet.
I had a hard time figuring out when these films were supposed to be set. Some shots of a big city (I think it was Calcutta) contained 1950’s cars. But by the 1950s, India was a democracy and the maharajahs had lost the absolute control that the plot requires.
But then, Lang wasn’t interested in the real India, but an illusion – and a very racist one at that. There’s the magic rope, the terrifying tiger, the lepers, and the white man who is the only one who can save the day (with the help of his white family). Paget’s character is half-white, which assumedly means she’s good enough to marry a German. The cast was made up almost entirely of Europeans in brownface.
Lang left Hollywood and returned to Germany to make these movies. The Epic was a remake of Das Indische Grabmal, a 1921 two-part movie that Lang wrote with Thea von Harbou.
I wonder if it had been more fun with a rowdier audience. As I saw it, I give both movies a C. If you want to catch them, they’ll screen again on Saturday, January 25 at 1:00.
Newly restored, the two films were screened on DCPs, and they looked great. I was surprised that they were screened at the pre-widescreen 1.37×1 aspect ratio. I know Lang hated scope, but had assumed that by the late ’50s, non-scope German films would have been screened at 1.66×1. The DCP has the original German dialog with English subtitles.
After Lang’s epic, BAMPFA screened Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7; part of the series Agnès Varda: An Irresistible Force. I love this movie, but I didn’t feel a need to see it again. Besides, I can’t see four films a day in a theater that doesn’t allow food.
Before the screening, Associate Film Curator Kate MacKay introduced the film. Eraserhead was Lynch’s first feature, and MacKay told us how The Elephant Man became his second. Mel Brooks was producing the film, and he wanted to see Eraserhead before signing up this new director. As Brooks watch the movie, Lynch paced nervously in the lobby. Finally, the movie ended, and Brooks came out and told Lynch he was crazy, and therefore perfect for the job.
The movie is weird and extremely gross, but the basic story is ridiculously commonplace. Henry meets his girlfriend’s parents. They have a baby, she leaves him, and the not-too-bright Henry must take on all the parental responsibilities. But while that description is accurate, it misses everything that makes this movie special. Eraserhead is like nothing you’ve never seen before. The extremely high-contrast black and white photography makes everything and everyone look ugly. The sound effects, even though they’re of common sounds, are disturbingly loud and frightening. Ugly, living things seem to be growing everywhere. And the baby…well, you’ll have to see it for yourself. A deeply disturbing film, but also a very funny one.
I give Eraserhead an A-.