23rd 01 - 2018 | no comment »

The Tiger of Eschnapur / The Indian Tomb (1959)

Director: Fritz Lang

By Roderick Heath

Fritz Lang returned to make films in Germany after a quarter-century’s absence, after the box office failure of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) finally brought down the curtain on his Hollywood career. Lang had arrived in America as a feted figure wielding great prestige, but he subsisted in marginally produced, often low-budget films after his stern, uncompromising efforts at social commentary purveyed in films like Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937) dismayed audiences. Lang’s late oeuvre has long since been disinterred and celebrated for it lucid filmmaking and devious deployment of social commentary and personal artistry, but Lang himself felt awkward pride for most of them as a hired studio hand trying to wring personal interest from his assignments, understandable considering the comedown the director had experienced from his days as the titan of UFA.

As if in obedience to some common law entwining the nature of gravity, economics, and artistic inspiration, the careers of many film directors seem to fold back upon themselves eventually, bringing them back to their roots and early territory in their later films. Lang’s return to Germany saw him make three final films that all had obvious ties to his early efforts. The two-part exotic melodrama The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb was adapted from a popular novel by Lang’s one-time wife Thea von Harbou, whilst his very last released work continued his series of thrillers based around supervillain Dr Mabuse with The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). To say a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since Lang had last worked on Von Harbou’s material would be an understatement. Lang and Von Harbou had been a glamorous, scandalous, fractious, uniquely productive couple for over a decade, collaborating on some of the greatest films of the silent era. On top of their personal split, Lang represented staunch refusal to countenance Hitler’s rise, whereas Von Harbou had joined the Nazi Party, albeit, she had argued, for the sake of helping her work for the rights of Indians like her third husband under the regime.

This real-life resonance lends even greater piquancy to the story’s wistful daydream about another, almost idyllic world that becomes fatally infected by authoritarian brutality. Two earlier versions of Von Harbou’s novel had already been made. Lang had felt cheated out of directing the first version, which was handled by one of Lang’s great rivals Joe May, because of his lack of directing experience at the time. Getting Lang to make another smacked of the same phenomenon that would produce the following year’s Ben-Hur, the push to make a blockbuster version of a well-proven property to recapture past glories and reinvigorate a waning film industry. In spite of his great influence on the idea of the epic film, Lang had been bypassed for making any entries in Hollywood’s glut of historical sagas which were produced to exploit the spectacle of widescreen processes as an answer to television. Lang famously derided widescreen formats as only good for snakes and funerals. And then he took on a project that revolves around, well, at least one snake.

The lush, Orientalist fantasia that is Lang’s Indian duology suggests, at first glance, a director happily taking refuge in glossy decoration as he faces the sunset of his career. A few years later, Lang would feature as the representative of artistic ambition in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), trying to make an airily abstracted take on The Odyssey and clashing with his sleazy producer. It feels more than a little ironic then that the Eschnapur duology is in many ways exactly the sort of film Godard’s emblematic philistine bankroller would have loved, a vigorous and sexy piece of kitschy showmanship. And yet The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are deceptively complex meditations on Lang’s favourite themes and career-long motifs. Lang’s career was still utterly compelled by his contemplations of ingrained human impulses towards violence, repression, despotism, and paranoia underlying surface social codes, and his incisive perspective was scarcely diluted by age. But he was still also an accomplished fabulist, a talent who constantly battled the dark side of his imagination and occasionally embraced the lighter.

The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb take place in the nominal present-day, but exist more properly in a dream-state, all the better to focus the compulsions of Lang’s lifelong fascination with the distorting, competing gravities of power and desire. Tellingly, the series also stages a partial repeat of motifs found in both Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1926). As in the former, a strong and upright hero defeats a monster only to find himself beset for the sake of sexual jealousy and statecraft machinations. Like the latter, it presents the idea of a city as an embodiment of both the psyche and the body politic. The Tiger of Eschnapur, the first part of the duology, commences with German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid, who had also gone by the name Paul Christian during his own Hollywood foray) staying overnight in a village as he makes his way to the capital of the small Indian state of Eschnapur. Harald, a tall, strong man with a fierce sense of justice, is annoyed when two soldiers harass a serving girl, Bharani (Luciana Paluzzi), so he picks them up and bangs their heads together like Moe Howard. Bharani’s mistress, the sacred temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget), thanks Harald for his chivalry. A tiger is terrorising the countryside, and it breaks into the village after nightfall, killing a boy.

As Harald and Seetha travel in the same caravan across country to the capital, the tiger attacks and drives away Seetha’s litter bearers, leaving her trapped at the monster’s mercy. Harald has the inspiration of driving the tiger off with a fiery torch, saving Seetha. Architect and dancer are both welcomed at the palace of the state’s autocratic Maharajah, Chandra (Walther Reyer), Harald to help with his programme of modernisation and improvement, and Seetha to perform at an upcoming festival. Harald begins mapping Chandra’s ancient palace with the help of western-trained Eschnapuri engineering expert Asagara (Jochen Blume). The bond between Harald and Seetha deepens after they’re met with perfect hospitality by the Maharajah. Harald helps Seetha plumb the ambiguities of her past, recognising a song she sings learned in childhood as an Irish folk song, awakening memories in the lady that confirm she’s the daughter of a British soldier and an Indian woman. Meanwhile Harald earns Chandra’s respect and vows of friendship by saving his life during a hunt for the monster tiger, which is captured and imprisoned in the palace.

The Eschnapur duology unfolds over the course of about 200 minutes (although the two films were edited together into a single 95 minute unit entitled Journey to the Lost City for initial English-language market release), keeping one foot squarely planted in Lang’s earliest movies – the venturesome cliffhanging and secret zones of The Spiders (1919), the Arabesques and Chinoiserie of the stories within stories of Der Müede Tod (1921), the tyrannical figure who tries to orchestrate people’s lives and goes on a destructive warpath when they resist, a la Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). Although the diptych enters wholeheartedly into a realm of melodrama and pulp fiction thrills, Lang maintains fervent emotional depth, shaded by his unique talent for creating worlds within worlds. This talent is signalled in the peculiarly dreamy prologue as Harald first glimpses Seetha as a veiled face hovering amongst ancient brickwork, a ghost of elusive femininity, incarnation of the enigmatically attractive spirit of place. Seetha is a deeply dedicated and pure-hearted avatar of the local culture, faithful to Shiva and seemingly favoured by the gods.

The tiger that erupts out of the foliage to assault Seetha, like the dragon felled by Siegfried in Die Nibelungen, represents chaos and savagery kept at strength by a man blessed both in mental muscle but also physical might, making Harald a contemporary version of a legendary Germanic hero. Their fairy-tale romance is however about to run headlong into their appointed enemy: Chandra, who becomes utterly fixated on Seetha after watching her dance, and insists she marry him. As ever in Lang, there ought to be a sign pointing at everyone’s head that reads, here there be tigers. Chandra however seems like an entirely upright and rational figure when they first meet him. He’s the very model of an enlightened despot, in the mode of Frederick the Great, that long-admired figure of German history who nonetheless made servility seem comfortable for too many both within and without his fledgling nation. Lang sets out to pull apart this cultural ideal with ruthless concision as he portrays Chandra as prone to exactly the same forces of human weakness as anyone else, but who through his place at the centre of a state gets to enact that will apparently unchecked. The Human Beast, the Zola novel first filmed by Jean Renoir and then remade by Lang as Human Desire (1954), offers the perfect thumbnail description of Lang’s later career preoccupations, as he returned with increasingly sly method to the theme in his studio work.

“You’ll notice there are no carpets here,’ Chandra points out to Harald when first showing about the upper apartments of his palace: “Because of cobras.” The inferred if not glimpsed notion of malign, slithering strokes of black sneaking their way into the shining, scrupulously ordered environs of civilisation’s expression conveys not just the essence of the lurking threat in the immediate narrative but also connects again to Lang’s career-long obsession with irrational forces prying at the limits of civilised order. The floors must be kept bare, the clutter at a minimum, the essence of the architecture must show what’s what. Chandra’s plans for a rapid and convulsive reconstruction of his backwater, to be leveraged through the efforts of his imported architects, creates unease amongst the local oligarchs who don’t want any such change or destabilisation, not the high priest of the local sects, Yama (Valéry Inkijinoff), nor Chandra’s younger brother Ramigani (René Deltgen), or his former brother-in-law, Prince Padhu (Jochen Brockmann).

Chandra is still in mourning for Padhu’s sister, the former Maharani, whilst Ramigani has designs for usurping his brother’s throne, for which he needs both the backing of other potentates and a swell of popular support. Ramigani sees in Chandra’s ardour for Seetha a unique chance to gain both: Padhu and the priests are all deeply offended by the notion of the Maharajah marrying again, and the populace might also be swayed. Ramigani decides to help Chandra destroy himself, including arranging the death of Bharani in a magic act as she was acting as go-between for Harald and Seetha, but he’s unable to prevent Chandra discovering the burgeoning romance. Chandra retaliates by having Harald herded into a pen where he keeps captured tigers, including the monster tiger: he gives Harald a pike to battle the tiger with as a chance to survive the ordeal. Harald succeeds in killing the beast, so Chandra lets him leave with the threat to have him killed if he isn’t out of the kingdom within twenty-four hours. But Seetha elects to join him, and the pair flee into the desert fringing the state.

Von Harbou’s book probably conveyed a strong dose of distanced ethnographic interest in India, and some have noted that it also clearly bore out a deep German interest in the era in Indian culture as a fount of western culture in general – an interest that would take on a graver cast given the Nazi’s beloved fantasies of the Aryan inheritance. For Lang, Eschnapur is more like the sort of half-real foreign land where dramatists of Shakespeare’s day would set their parables for easy consumption and sneaky inference. In this regard, the casting of European actors as Indians, whilst grating, helps clarify Lang’s subtexts: all of this is a dress-up game, a pantomime masking the violent fray of feelings enacted by the victimised lovers and the glowering, increasingly implacable Chandra. The narrative highlights the structure and stability of a state, with its pillars of religion, military, and nominally allied grandees, dependent on personal ties and revolving theoretically around the outlook of its leader. Once that outlook is thrown from its proper orbit, the state becomes diseased; when the stuff of government is deeply personal – Padhu allies with Ramigani because a remarriage will offend his sister’s memory – it becomes entirely in thrall to individual neurosis and perversity. The Eschnapur duology essays a theme that’s not really that far from a seemingly very different meditation on recent European history, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), as the inevitability of personal passion which refuses the rule of the state and will of the leadership caste becomes a form of dissidence, however incidental.

“I can think of nothing that might destroy our friendship,” the Maharajah comments to Harald after gifting him a ring for saving his life: Lang cuts with brute candour to Seetha, whose pulchritude is all but literally worshipped as the linchpin of state and religion, which is idolises the sacred feminine. The statue in the temple where Seetha dances is a colossal vision of such, complete with massive, bulbous breasts. Chandra’s decline from modernising and liberalising influence to the worst kind of despot is speedy and requires only sexual jealousy to gain impetus. Powerful and civilised men destroying themselves and, sometimes, those who love them over a woman was one of the most fundamental Lang themes, of course, enacted in variations in films as disparate as Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spies (1928), Scarlet Street (1946), The House by the River (1950), and The Big Heat (1953). Here, the theme is not contained by Lang’s acerbic, realist side, but the fairytale setting allows it to become a veritable universal condition, harking back to Lang’s early expressionist works (including The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1919, which he wrote) where the landscape becomes a projection of the interior drama, a device he managed to deploy in Hollywood works like The House by the River where the eponymous waterway literalises the processes of the psyche, slowly but surely turning in a gyre where every sunken sickness emerges again.

Like many great directors whose career started in the silent era but stretched into the burgeoning age of widescreen colour, including the likes John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and King Vidor, Lang’s later work betrayed a waning interest in the increasingly realistic strictures of post-war film, and an increasing tendency to utilise the devices they were being handed – the bigger screens and the richer colour and the film with greater sensitivity to space and light gradation – to tellingly counterintuitive ends. Lang had pushed the western in the direction of expressionism on Rancho Notorious (1952), and with the Eschanpur duology enters entirely into a zone where the value of colour is at once decorative and spiritual, otherworldly and artistically precise: Lang’s fantasy India is a place where the clothes, flowers, buildings, and animals glow with colour-drenched inner life that threatens to overwhelm the Technicolor textures. The early scenes of Seetha rehearsing her dance and speaking of her hazy past to Harald take place in a dreamy locale of lotus flowers drifting in cool, crystalline water all placed and described with the care of an impressionist master. The animals, from a phallic cobra that Seetha has to dance before, to crocodiles lunging towards some fallen bodies, are more the stuff of pantomime than documentary authenticity. The location photography in India beholds white palisades and bastions, the pageantry of Chandra’s festivals and functions, and subsumes all into a delirium.

The most beautiful thing of all, and the most stringently fetishised, is Paget’s Seetha. Echoing the android succubus of Metropolis whose Salome-ish dance drives rational men into paroxysms of lunacy, Seetha’s well-shaken booty has the power to set the entire state of Eschnapur into chaos along with its leadership caste. Unlike the robot Maria in Metropolis, Seetha is not evil, but is rather like the other Maria in that film, representative of all things good and beneficent, one who obeys her perfectly natural ardour for Harald after initial misgivings over potential cultural tensions. Seetha embodies the sacred feminine but also its very earthly and desirable incarnation. Each episode of the diptych revolves around a lengthy dance sequence in which Seetha performs in the temple adjoining Chandra’s palace, in the shadow of the great statue of the Goddess. These scenes, rather than any action sequences or sprawls of pageantry, are the centrepieces of spectacle in the diptych; Lang’s last true act of cinematic showmanship is simply to confirm that there’s nothing better to transfix the eye than the human form. Seetha’s dances break down the gap between Indian folk dance and Minsky’s act in Paget’s dazzling, sensually provocative gyrations, swathed in gold mail and ornaments for her first dance and teasingly frail-looking silver leaf for her second. Mainstream cinema night not have seen dance sequences as unabashedly erotic since DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), and they were initially greatly curtailed for American release.

Not that this is mere elaborate sexploitation, although it’s certainly that too; Lang offers them as a commentary on the business of movie stardom. Lang depicts Seetha at the outset as an exacting artist, rehearsing her performances with her musicians in preparation for the great festival, only to find in both dances she’s actually performing to prove and then retain her worth as a sexual object. She auditions in the first as a potential wife for the smitten Chandra and in the second to appease the priapic insanity she’s incidentally stoked, symbolised by the snake she has to calmly dance around without irritating. Seetha is a devoutly religious protagonist whose definition of her beliefs transcends the resolutely bigoted use of it by the high priests: when her face dance is halted when she glimpses Harald high above in the temple galleries, and a strange darkening comes over the temple statue, everyone assumes it’s a sign of anger, but Seetha instead sees it as a warning and a promise of care. Paget’s name became synonymous to a certain degree with historical epics in her relatively short career, thanks to her performances in movies including Princess of the Nile (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), where she had also played a living pawn caught between powerful fiends and a true lover, and Omar Khayyam (1957). Her presence, even when dubbed, is vital to the duology, particularly as her genuine dancing skill and strong-looking body, which through its very prowess refuses to be objectified, but instead wields palpable independence as the instrument of her own will, one very large part of what drives Chandra insane in his desire to possess it.

The spectacle of performance rendered as nexus of the sacred and profane evidently amused Lang. It might even be seen as the very basis of his career, his long and patient march against the tide of fortune and industry to keep on purveying his vision regardless of setting. Lang’s career is replete with sophisticated games with the act of storytelling and making art, from the finale of Spione (1928) as a clown’s onstage death represents the ultimate takedown for a would-be world-conqueror, to The House by the River, where the antihero’s incidental homicide becomes fuel for gleeful exertions in creativity. Bharani’s death is a more self-conscious example of spectacle and conjuring as arts worked for deception and political subversion. Here, Ramigani contrives to have the inconvenient servant murdered before Chandra’s court by a fakir who has already managed the classic conjuror’s stunt of the Indian Rope Trick. The ability to vanish in front of a watching crowd gives way to the sight of very real, red blood pouring out of a wicker basket through which the fakir has plunged his swords: Lang telegraphs the moment from so far out and then compels the audience (and Seetha) to watch it all unfold with merciless patience, both women assured by powerful, patronising men all the while that everything is fine.

When Chandra has Seetha scooped up from her private lodgings and installed in his palace, she notes the potentially illustrative irony of having a bird in a literal gilded cage as company. Chandra releases the bird only to have it fly back, but finds humans don’t act as simply as animals. Padhu kidnaps Seetha, intending to ruin Seetha as a potential bride by having her raped and disfigured, only for Chandra to chase them down and whip his recalcitrant former brother-in-law in the face, an act of gallantry that fails to gain what Chandra assumes is its proper reward as Harald and Seetha flee him. Chandra soon greets Harald’s colleague Walter Rhode (Claus Holm), who is married to Harald’s sister Irene (Sabine Bethmann), and instructs him to abandon all plans for modernisation and improvement, and instead build a spectacular tomb, one Chandra implies Seetha will be immured alive in once she’s recaptured. The Tiger of Eschnapur ends with a classic cliffhanger scenario as Harald and Seetha collapse in the desert in fleeing Chandra’s soldiers, sprawled upon the sands clutching each-others’ hands, a pair of crucified lovers. In The Indian Tomb, the couple are found and aided by people from a nearby village, who hide them from the soldiers in obedience to the laws of hospitality, although one man eventually sells them out.

Forewarned, Harald and Seetha leave the village and retreat into jagged nearby mountains, where they take refuge in a cave that’s an ancient shrine to Shiva. Seetha’s urgent prayers seem to be answered when a spider spins a web over the cave entrance, making it seem as if no-one’s entered it in ages. A deeply corny touch, but also charged with a sense of the delicately miraculous as well as a visual flavour straight out of Lang’s silents. Part of the diptych’s weird power lies in just this sense of airy, numinous mystique, and a longing for a spiritual possibility as the only escape from the cruel impulses of the flesh and crueller twists of the mind. Lang conjures a world where faiths new and old, foreign and familiar coexist and blend in unpredictable ways. His patient approach to his storytelling and creating this little world unto itself knits a unique mood, one that retains, from that eerie early first vision of Seetha, of having glimpsed something at once palpable and mystically elusive. An old swami (Victor Francen), a former prince himself, lurks in a ruin on the road to Eschnapur, remarked upon in the first part but not visited until the second, when Chandra goes to see him, at first asking for spiritual advice but soon instead demanding some sort of reassuring platitude. “You don’t want the truth,” the swami retorts: “You want someone to deny it with you.”

There’s an echo here of a similar Indian-culture-through-Western eyes vision, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946), which also revolved around interlopers falling afoul of overpowering passions, where the capacity for total removal from the world of the senses represented by such a figure of religious commitment proved terribly out of reach. Another fascinating aspect of the duology is its approach to Chandra as a character. As monstrous as he often acts, he never loses Lang’s sympathy as his emblem of masculine folly. You can all but feel his teeth grinding in seething sexual frustration and emotional offence in being rejected by two people close to his heart, whilst his better self struggles in vain for supremacy, a struggle foiled by Chandra’s near-unchecked freedom to indulge his ego. Chandra is cursed with an intimate awareness of the incredibly fine line between adoration and detestation, as he articulates to Irene when he encounters that level-headed lady, as he obfuscates the purpose of his intended tomb and describes it as his monument to the idea of a great love, or at least one that will transmute hate into its opposite over the centuries. The centrality of architecture in the narrative serves both to facilitate the plot in this manner, but also allows Lang to nest concepts within concepts. Architecture is at once a metaphor for his own conception of cinema and a way of mapping the torturous locus of history, identity, and personality Chandra’s world represents. No surprise at all to remember young Lang had initially studied civil engineering before switching to art.

Lang had long experimented in blending his own art form with others, most famously with his annexation of expressionism and then cubism to inform his films’ visuals, pursuing the high modernist ideal of trying to create art where the mode of expression is matched to the subject. Like a final statement of faith in the version of the medium he had helped bring to maturity, the Eschnapur duology is a testimony to the illustrative richness and depth of visual field he could gain from the traditional Academy film ratio. That seemingly boxy and intractable space accords perfectly with Lang’s careful explorations of the confines of Chandra’s palace and adjacent catacomb, mimicking the compartmentalisation of the mind; here are places where precious things and high ideals are stashed; here’s where old foes and unpleasant facts are locked away. One film made under Lang’s potent influence, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), which also referenced his overtly Freudian essay in psychic architectonics, Secret Beyond the Door (1948), borrowed the device of navigating by footfall Irene uses here in trying to locate Seetha and Harald’s prisons. The diptych was also almost certainly an influence on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Indiana Jones films, particularly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which lifts imagery wholesale.

Eschanpur as a fantasy landscape echoes Metropolis with its grandiose upper reaches of stability, order, and beauty, and its septic depths. Harald and Asagara’s exploration of the labyrinthine Moghul tunnels under the palace see them wandering into ancient precincts where the carved figure of a skull-bedecked Kali represents the lurking spectre of evils unexamined, and the dark, muddy waters filled with crocodiles can sometimes break in unbidden. Harald accidentally penetrates a chamber that proves to be where Chandra stashes Eschanpur’s populace of lepers, who advance in lunatic ranks upon any intruder. “Haven’t you noticed there aren’t any sick people in Eschnapur?” Asagara asks Harald after rescuing him from the horde. The downright creep scenes with the lepers feel like some rough draft for George Romero’s zombie hordes, actualisations of all that is diseased in the body politic bound at some point to burst out upon the world. Similarly Chandra’s desire to graft new shoals of clean modernity onto his state, represented by the nice neat models poured over by Harald, Asagara, and Rhode, without effecting any sort of political, social, or personal transformation is indicted as a common disease, one that renders it liable to being consumed by all those crocodiles and cobras. Dramatic architecture and the more literal kind fuse together in the diptych’s last act as Irene braves the labyrinth.

The spider’s miracle proves to only temporarily save them from capture as Ramigani and his men manage to grab Seetha and Harald seems to die falling off a cliff along as he battles a soldier. But Ramigani soon reveals to Seetha that Harald survived and is now held captive in a dungeon under the palace, threatening to have him killed if she fails to marry Chandra and facilitate Ramigani’s coup. Catching wind of the conspiracy that seems to surround them, Rhode and Irene try to extract the truth from Asagara, who has a fair idea of what’s transpired but, compelled to remain silent for fear of reprisal from the Maharajah, has to settle for dropping faint hints as to Harald’s fate. Soon Irene pieces together her brother’s map of the palace and uses it to find Seetha, and finally hears the whole tale. Harald himself manages to escape by overpowering his guard, thanks to an admirably simple ruse that builds to a classic, vivid episode of Langian violence as Harald strangles his jailer with his own chains – the terrible face of death filmed in fearsome, looming close-up that speaks of Lang’s impact on Hitchcock – and then locates his sister and her husband in the labyrinth. Asagara dies heroically trying to defend Irene from the lepers after she inadvertently releases them. The film’s last act finally sees the many, patiently worked plot threads begin to collide, as Ramigani’s coup succeeds and Padhu’s forces invade the palace, unchecked by the Maharajah’s own forces because Ramigani has stabbed his general Dagh (Guido Celano) after he refused to join the insurrection. Chandra finally gets his brutal chastening as he’s stripped to the waist, tied up, and viciously whipped for the enjoyment of a gloating Padhu.

But the usurpers’ gloating proves short-lived, as Dagh, injured but still able, appears with his soldiers to shoot down Padhu and crush the coup. Ramigani flees into the labyrinth only to be trapped in a low chamber into which pours river water and crocodiles eager to feast on his flesh, in a fiendishly great comeuppance. But the film’s real resolution is the confrontation between the freed, glowering, vengeful Chandra and Harald and Seetha, as the lord finds man and mate fighting assorted thugs and reacting to his own entrance as just another fight in the offing, Harald with barely enough strength to stay on his feet. For all of the characters, their civilised pretences have been stripped bare, leaving them only primal realities, the essence of their beings stripped to raw nerves and will. Such an endpoint was common for Lang’s characters, although it was often a point of complete internal collapse, like Mabuse. Here, however, Lang opens the gate to new spiritual possibilities, as the spectacle of his own cruelty is enough to cause Chandra to drop his sword and give up his royal life, becoming instead the swami’s new acolyte, another form of self-extinction, but one that feels like a relieve exhalation from its creator, a last attempt to define a zone of life that might deliver freedom from the merciless hunger of life itself. It’s hard to deny that many criticisms levelled at the Eschnapur duology were accurate – it was silly, passé, and naïve. But it’s also still an utterly glorious late testimonial and summative work from one of cinema’s titans.


19th 10 - 2008 | 3 comments »

2008 CIFF: Heaven on Earth

Director: Deepa Mehta

2008 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

On my way to the screening of Heaven on Earth, I drove past a church at which a wedding celebration was underway. I stopped to let a grandmother pull her grandson across the road, his tiny shoes barely touching the ground, his munchkin-size suitcoat hiking up as he gripped his grandmother’s hand. A large van obscured my view of what was going on in front of the church, but I could clearly hear music with a Middle Eastern flavor. As I passed beyond the van, I took a quick look at people in a circle dancing and clapping with their arms held high. I watched this scene as long as I could in my sideview mirror, reflecting on how this neighborhood, once Swedish Lutheran, had given way to a new immigrant community that no longer worshipped Jesus Christ in the church at which they celebrated.

As Heaven on Earth began, I found myself wrapped in another celebration—this one a prewedding party of a large group of Indian women dressed beautifully in vibrant, gold-threaded saris, armfuls of bangle bracelets, and many-tiered chandelier earrings. They danced with the joyous freedom I had seen only an hour or so ago in my hometown, preparing a beautiful bride named Chand (Bollywood star Preity Zinta) for her journey to Canada to meet her bethrothed for the first time and accustom herself to life in a new country, with a new family. I felt as though I were getting a chance to see inside the experience of a family like the one I had glimpsed only briefly, and savored the possibilities that would soon unfold in the dark theatre. I expected Chand to experience many feelings that go along with being in a strange environment among strange people. But I did not expect this radiant bride to become the extremely unhappy, isolated victim of spousal abuse.

How can any bride expect their spouse to despise and abuse them? Perhaps it is more to be expected in arranged marriages that happen long distance, but Chand didn’t seem worried. The morning before her departure, Chand’s much wiser mother, awakens her to repeat a story about a cobra. Chand sasses that she’s heard the story a hundred times. “Do you remember the moral of the story?” her mother says. “Don’t mess with a cobra!” is Chand’s response. The lesson her mother really wants her to remember is to learn to yield to difficult circumstances. It sounds like Chand’s mother has seen a good many arranged marriages and observed—perhaps lived herself—the difficulties.

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When Chand’s new family meets her at the airport, they remark glowingly that she is even more beautiful than her picture. Her husband-to-be, Rocky (Vanch Bardwaj), is teased by his family for being as “as shy as a girl” upon meeting Chand. When the family arrives home, Chand learns that she is to share a small, single-story house with Rocky’s parents, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two children. Chand says little and keeps her eyes downcast in shyness and obedience.

The marriage takes place almost immediately. As Chand waits for the ceremony to start, she looks out the window. “Dear God. It’s snowing!” Instead of wonder at this new experience, one of the bridal guests just says, “Oh shit.” The splendor and solemnity of the wedding ceremony made me feel this marriage was truly blessed. When the newlyweds return to their home, Chand lays expectantly on her side, still fully dressed in her wedding regalia, awaiting her husband. When he lays down, he says, “We’re not going to do anything tonight. I’m tired.” Chand, still a virgin, might be expected to be a tad bit relieved, but the look of disappointment, of worrying that she does not please Rocky, makes the scene particularly cruel.

The couple drives to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon. When Chand asks if they can take a picture of this physical wonder, Rocky says, “Only tourists take pictures.” Their first sexual embrace never happens because Rocky’s domineering mother (Balinder Johal) arrives at their room with the excuse that she had a premonition that he was in an accident. Rocky decides that he and his brother-in-law will sleep in the car, and Chand and Maji will take the room. When Chand suggests they get another room, Rocky slaps her hard across the face. Chand begins to use her imagination to retell the cobra story in her mind as a way to soothe her, take her back to India, and find a place of her own.

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Life for Chand now involves the endless drudgery of working in a laundry, even though she complains to her sister-in-law and coworker Aman (Ramanjit Kaur) that she has a degree. A Jamaican coworker (Yanna McIntosh) advises her to grate a root she gives Chand into Rocky’s drink; once he drinks it, he will fall instantly in love with her. Unfortunately, the root makes Rocky pass out. When Chand tells her friend about this, she says “You have to use the whole root.” When Chand does this and pours it into some milk, a chemical reaction occurs that causes the liquid to boil. Chand runs outside and dumps it on the ground and shakes her burned hand. In silhouette, we see a cobra rise in the foreground.

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The cobra will become a nuisance to Rocky’s family, but a source of solace for Chand, as it assumes the image of her husband and comes to her as the man she would like Rocky to be. One day she stays home from work, and the cobra Rocky enters her room, where they make love. When the real Rocky learns that she has been with another man—although Chand insists she was with him—he beats her savagely. A thoroughly confused Chand speaks to the cobra Rocky once more. The cobra provides her with a means to prove she is not an adulteress and gain her freedom—one, of course, that requires her to find great courage within herself.

Indians are taught that cobras are very powerful and can assume the shape of anything they wish. Chand did not make the connection between her imagination and the miraculous appearance of a cobra in Brampton, Ontario. Indeed, Rocky refused to allow her to call her mother and denied her the calling of marriage to which she had given herself willingly. Cut off from her roots, abused and reviled by her witchy mother-in-law and the men in the family, she suffered the usual fate of domestic abuse victims. The folklore of the cobra connects directly with the first scene—the celebration of the women. It is in the suppressed feminine power that Chand finds strength and a way to defeat her abusers.

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Deepa Mehta, an acclaimed director, is herself is an immigrant to Canada, and the film captures the flavor of an Indian colony in a new world. Her grasp of the dynamics of domestic violence is accurate and heartfelt—every blow Rocky lands can be felt. She uses a device of shooting Rocky and Chand as a couple in monochrome, reflecting the joylessness of their marriage and the otherworldliness of Chand’s imagination. It’s hard to understand Rocky’s attitude. Is he gay? Is he angry about being forced into an arranged marriage? Does he truly not like Chand? Or women in general? He beats Chand savagely when she pushes Maji to the floor, but when he tells his parents that they will always be his first priority, we can sense his own entrapment and resentment.

The film feels a bit long and goes slack in a couple of places, because it’s hard to know exactly how much time passes between Chand’s arrival in Canada and the end of the film. And despite Chand’s assertions that she had been with no man but Rocky, the complete lack of even discreet or suggested sex scenes made it difficult for me to believe the couple had ever consummated their marriage. Mehta, however, uses extreme close-ups to great effect, practically putting the audience into the scene and Chand’s imagination. The cast, with the exception of newcomer Bardwaj, are very affecting and individual, even Geetika Sharma, who plays Aman’s daughter Loveleen with enthusiasm for her new role model, and later, with dread.

Heaven on Earth regards patriarchy with a cold, clear gaze and asserts the salvation for women—and perhaps men—through belief in feminine power. This is a tough, but ultimately uplifting film. l

Trailer


10th 10 - 2008 | 3 comments »

2008 CIFF: Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Director/Writer/Animator: Nina Paley

2008 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The great stories of civilization teach lessons and convey beliefs. Many civilizations have The Good Wife and The Prodigal Son parables. India combines these two stories in the Ramayana, an epic poem from about 1000 BC. Indians through the centuries have been told, “Be as Rama,” the prodigal son who became one of India’s great rulers, or “Be as Sita,” Rama’s good and faithful wife. American animator Nina Paley got her hands on the Ramayana after a traumatic break-up with her boyfriend Dave, and saw the story in a much different light. Her film, Sita Sings the Blues, is subtitled, “The Greatest Breakup Story Ever Told.” Since she combines the Ramayana with her own break-up, it’s anyone’s guess which story she’s talking about.

The basic story told in Sita Sings the Blues is as follows: Dasharatha was the king of Kosala, an ancient kingdom that was located in present-day Uttar Pradesh, and ruled from its capital, Ayodhya. Dasharatha had three wives named Kausalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. Kausalya, the eldest queen, was the mother of the eldest son Rama. Rama was to be king when he grew to manhood. Rama married the beautiful Sita, and they were very happy.

Kaikeyi wanted her son to be king. She reminded the king that he promised to grant her two wishes. When she asked that Rama be banished for 17 years and that her son be made king, Dasharatha had to agree. Good son Rama prepared to go into the wilderness, and Sita begged to go with him. He didn’t want her to be with him in a dangerous forest filled with demons who were pestering the holy men and stamping out their fires, but she said a wife’s place is at her husband’s side. So they went off together.

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Ravana, the many-headed, many-armed king of Lanka (Sri Lanka today), was said to be a very learned and wise man, though he’s always called evil because he lusted after Sita and abducted her. Hanuman, a monkey warrior, found out that Ravana had carried Sita to his palace in Lanka and told Rama that Sita wanted him to rescue her. Rama raised a monkey army, crossed a land bridge to Lanka, and defeated Ravana. But he worried that Sita had been unfaithful to him and rejected her. Dejected, Sita asked that a fire be built that she could fling herself onto. They did so, but instead of dying, Sita survived, thus proving her purity. Seventeen years having passed, the pair took a flying chariot back to Ayodhya.

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Unfortunately, Rama’s subjects did not believe in Sita’s purity. Rama banished her, though she was pregnant with twin boys. She gave birth, and Rama found her again, but still doubted her purity. She asked Mother Earth to swallow her up if she was pure. Of course, the earth opened, and Sita was taken out of reach.

A bodhisattva, clearly a woman who may have been Sita, rises out of the ocean on a lotus flower, gyrating to traditional Indian music. Next to her rises a Victrola with a bird standing on it. She reaches over, bends the bird’s beak over to play the record, and we hear the voice of Annette Hanshaw, a torch singer of the 1920s and 30s, warble a love song. The record skips at the lyric “a woman like me,” forcing the bodhisattva to hit the Victrola. The scene explodes into a riot of music and dance as the opening credits role.

The Ramayana is a story all Indians learn in childhood; it is three grown-up Indians, represented by shadow puppets, who serve as our guides through the basics of the story and whose faulty memories and modern sensibilities give Paley ample opportunity for some great comedy. For example, the commentators try to decide how long ago the story takes place, starting at the 13th century. Paley provides appropriate garb for that century. “No, no, it was much longer ago than that.” The setting changes. Finally, one commentator chimes in “BC.” A title card places the story at “A long time ago BC.” One of my favorite moments comes when they wonder whether Sita deserved her fate. After all, she could have gone back to Rama with Hanuman and kept hundreds of warriors from being slaughtered. “And monkeys!” one says. “Yes,” another comments, “what about animal rights?”

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The animation style varies. When the elements of the story are simply being recounted by the commentators, the characters are stylized watercolors or stiff, cut-out images from magazines and books. Whenever Paley wishes to tell the story musically, all of the characters look like cartoons, with Sita portrayed as a kind of hinged-doll Betty Boop and the rest resembling Dudley Do-right. Annette Hanshaw provides Sita’s singing voice, trilling out such famous tunes of the time as “Am I Blue,” with Sita colored an appropriately dark blue. The film takes on a 1930s musical film quality at these junctures.

Paley intersperses the story of Sita with her parallel break-up story, beginning in San Francisco where she lives happily with Dave and their cat Lexi, going through to his temporary assignment in India and her joining him, to her flying to New York City for a conference and getting an e-mail from him saying “Don’t come back. Love, Dave.” After a suitable period of desperate longing and humiliation, Nina gets her act together, adopts another cat, and starts reading the Ramayana, revealing the origins of her idea to create Sita Sings the Blues. These scenes shorthand Nina and Dave’s emotions very effectively, and her depictions of her cats couldn’t be more dead-on and funny if she had videotaped them and inserted them in the film. Interestingly, I was worried about what happened to Lexi. Others must have been, too, because Paley adds a title card at the end assuring us that Lexi is being spoiled rotten by her new humans in San Francisco.

The film also includes a 2:30 minute intermission, during which the characters move around and get food from the concessions and audience sounds are heard. Since the film is only 82 minutes long, this was a huge joke on the butt deadeners movie fans increasingly have to endure. The curtains open after intermission to a fabulous dance choreographed to terrific Indian music that features Waking Life-style animation and quick cuts of Sita that get the audience back in the mood.

You can see exactly how all of this plays out in the trailer below:

Sita Sings the Blues is a wonderfully entertaining film packed with more great moments than I can possibly describe, with delightful animation and, if you’re a fan of torch and blues music of the 1920s and/or Annette Hanshaw, a great soundtrack. The Ramayana is supposed to teach about submitting to one’s fate, and despite the modern spin on the story, Nina learns to do just that. l


3rd 04 - 2007 | no comment »

After the Wedding (2006)

Director: Susanne Bier

2007 European Union Film Festival

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By Kathryn Ware

I love a movie that takes my expectations, shakes them around for a couple of hours, and ushers me out of the theater thoroughly and pleasantly surprised. A film that blazes a new trail, as opposed to following a well-trod path, is all too rare and cause for celebration in my book.

After the Wedding is just such a film. Director Susanne Bier (who co-wrote the film with Anders Thomas Jensen) has crafted a tightly wound drama that twists and turns without ever feeling contrived, and earned the Danish film a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination this past year.
The story centers on Jacob, a Danish ex-pat working at an Indian orphanage on the verge of shutting its doors. The children’s last hope lies with Jorgen, a Danish businessman who offers millions, but on one condition: that Jacob himself come to Copenhagen and shake hands on the deal. Why has Jorgen made such a personal request? And why is Jacob so reluctant to return to Copenhagen? These are just the first of many small mysteries that fuel the narrative.

Jacob arrives in Denmark where he’s set up in a posh hotel penthouse suite, a fish out of water among all the modern conveniences so foreign to his impoverished life in India. Awkward in a new suit and clutching a video tape of the children he hopes to save, he’s ill at ease during his first meeting with Jorgen, a confident man of wealth and power used to calling the shots, both professionally and personally. Jacob is lean, ruggedly handsome, and serious. We rarely see him smile. Jorgen is a large, gregarious man in the style of all successful businessmen who eat, drink, and socialize well. He talks more than he listens and rattles Jacob with his apparent lack of interest in Jacob’s earnest presentation. What, exactly, is his game?
When Jorgen makes the strange and seemingly innocuous request that Jacob attend his daughter’s wedding, the game, so to speak, is afoot.

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Arriving late to the ceremony, Jacob recognizes someone from his past and then a secret revealed at the reception pulls the rug out from under him, casting his trip in an entirely different light. What follows is a compelling personal drama that eludes expectation. As one revelation dominoes into another, Jacob is led to a moral decision with ramifications felt halfway around the world.

It’s no disappointment to the audience that the “big reveal” comes early on in the story; there’s so much more to follow, holding our attention as we watch these characters grapple with each new development. The camera that frequently lingers on extreme close-ups of characters’ faces—especially the eyes—combined with a somber soundtrack, creates an air of uncertainty. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it did, I was deeply moved.

Mad Mikkelsen (the bad guy poker player in Casino Royale) admirably carries the film on Jacob’s shoulders. Rolf Lassgard (as Jorgen) is wonderful in a role that easily could have had him chewing scenery at every turn. Sidse Babett Knudsen (as Jorgen’s wife Helene) and Stine Fischer Christensen (as his newlywed daughter) round out the fine ensemble. The strength and honesty of this acting quartet keeps the film from sinking in melodramatic waters. l

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