Newly arrived in Eschnapur, a.k.a. Bengal, India, handsome and heroic architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) discovers local villagers are being terrorized by man-eating tigers. He is soon smitten with Seetha (an alluring Debra Paget), a beautiful half-Indian dancer due to perform a sacred dance at the temple beneath the palace of the Maharajah Chandra (Walter Reyer) who has hired Harald to build a hospital. It so happens the Maharajah is equally enamoured with Seetha. Having lost his wife some years ago, he proposes marriage which Seetha contemplates out of gratitude even though her heart secretly belongs to Harald. The star-crossed lovers become unwitting pawns as the scheming Prince Ramigani (René Deltgen) and his allies spread rumours about their secret romance, enraging his brother the Maharajah...
Back in the early Twenties, the great German filmmaker Fritz Lang co-scripted a silent version of The Indian Tomb along with his then-wife and frequent collaborator Thea von Harbou. Lang had intended to direct and was enraged when the project was taken out of his hands and entrusted to then more established director Joe May, who like Lang later ended up in Hollywood though on less prestigious projects like The Invisible Man Returns (1940). Fast-forward almost four decades and this sprawling, sumptuous, two-part remake marked Lang's grand return to the German film industry. Both films convey the sense that Lang really wanted to flex his creative muscles, having been constrained by Hollywood and its devotion to pseudo-realism.
As a result the visionary director delivers a truly opulent spectacle: lavish palaces with bejewelled interiors, lush scenery, armies of elephants, hordes of extras and exotic animals, amazing sets with giant stone idols. This might be the India of colonialist fantasy but Lang's treatment is as respectful and sincere in its appreciation of Asian culture as it is romantic. The film repeatedly stresses how architecture, religion, song and dance, in other words culture serves as a metaphorical thread binding people to the Indian landscape. At times these ideas recall the semi-mystical philosophy von Harbou used to include in her films about the German wilderness. Rather than lapse into airy-fairy mystical musings, Lang crystalizes these concepts in their purest form through the key character of Seetha, a strong, confident woman who expresses herself with her body.
Imported Hollywood star Debra Paget is a vision of loveliness in her eye-popping costumes and performs some of the most sexually provocative dances seen onscreen in the Fifties. It is not an authentic Indian dance by any means but conveys an underlining message quite evocatively nonetheless. Much like Maria, heroine of Lang's landmark science fiction epic Metropolis (1927), Seetha embodies the crystilization of sex, physicality and power, only to more benevolent ends as the unifying catalyst proves the love she inspires in others. "For foreigners India is like an intoxicating drink", she tells Harald at one point. Seetha enables Harald to perceive the human reality lying beneath the layers of metaphor in Indian culture, to understand that art is the tapestry that binds life together. Though played by German, Swiss and American actors in brown-face, these are characters not caricatures and a strong cast do their utmost to imbue them with dignity. Look out for future Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi in a small but significant role as Seetha's handmaiden Baharani.
For some modern viewers, the pacing may seem a little slow but the plot is so dense with intrigue and incident that the relative paucity of conventional action is not a problem. Lang crafts set-pieces ranging from the charming, as when a magician and his boy assistant stage the fabled Indian rope trick, to the horrific, e.g. Harald's confrontation with the near-zombie like leper colony inhabiting the subterranean caverns beneath the sacred temple, while his script includes many endearing allusions to the work of the great Indian poets. The last reel kicks the excitement up a notch as a tuxedo-clad Harald is trapped in an arena with man-eating tigers and an escape into the sandstorm-ridden desert concludes with a serial-style cliffhanger and a shot later referenced by Tsui Hark in his Dangerous Encounters of the Third Kind (1980). Lang picked up the story with the second film, The Indian Tomb (1959) a.k.a. Tomb of Love although American audiences caught both films at the drive-in via a bastardized version called Journey to the Lost City (1960) released by exploitation kings American International Pictures.
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.