After the cliffhanger ending of The Tiger of Eschnapur, the second part of Fritz Lang’s Indian epic finds lovers Seetha (Debra Paget) and Harald (Paul Hubschmid) on the run from murderous Maharajah Chandra (Walter Reyer), after the former spurned his marriage proposal. Lost in the desert, the pair are rescued by travelling merchants and briefly sheltered in a small village until one angry local decides to betray them. Hiding in a cave, Seetha’s prayers to the Hindu god Shiva result in apparently divine intervention when a spider spins a web keeping the lovers out of sight. Later when the pair are ambushed by the Maharajah’s men, Harald takes a seemingly fatal fall off a cliff. Of course, he’s not really dead but imprisoned by the Maharajah’s brother, Prince Ramigani (René Deltgen), the villain behind this whole scheme to seize the throne.
Meanwhile at the palace, the Maharajah plans to build a grand tomb intended to hold poor Seetha’s body, unless she changes her mind about marrying him. Harald’s sister Irene (Sabine Bethmann) and her architect husband Walter Rhodes (Claus Holm) are unwittingly enlisted to construct the elaborate mausoleum, but grow suspicious as to the whereabouts of their compatriot. While Ramigani and his evil allies set the stage for a coup, Irene allies herself with the resourceful Seetha in a race to save her brother’s life.
Having established his characters and set the plot in motion with part one, Lang cranks up the suspense with The Indian Tomb which is also known by the alternate title: The Tomb of Love and was edited together with its predecessor into the drive-in epic Journey to the Lost City for its first English language release. There are plenty of thrills and spills, notably Irene’s escape from those legions of zombie-like lepers imprisoned in subterranean caves beneath the palace, but Lang never allows the film to lapse into a string of routine chases and hair-raising escapes. Compare this to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), on which Lang’s film had an undoubted influence. Whilst the plot - which encompasses pseudo-religious mysticism, sexy dance routines, sudden explosions, swordfights, a revolution, a flood and death by rampaging crocodile - is the stuff of lurid pulp adventure, Lang’s treatment is resolutely humane, presenting characters that are complex and often conflicted.
Once again, symbolism is to the fore, as embodied through calligraphy, sculpture, music and dance. Lang evidently understands how such things bind the diverse, often conflicting cultures throughout India. There is a mild clash of ideologies between Seetha, with her unwavering faith in the gods, and Harald’s more pragmatic and rational outlook. However, the film strikes a balance between both perspectives and draws a clear line between faith, as incarnated in alluring flesh by the selfless and spirited Seetha, and religion as embodied by the belligerent high priest Yama (Valéry Inkijinoff) who places tradition and ritual above morality. A major theme of the film is the interpretation of signs. Chandra confides in an ancient guru that the gods no longer speak to him, only to be told that it is he who does not listen. Seetha on the other hand is highly adept at reading the signs that pass other characters by, while even Irene proves notably astute, especially when it comes to reading people. This time Lang divides the action between both couples. Irene and Walter are less interesting characters but function well as detectives slowly piecing the conspiracy together.
Strong heroines are another distinctive aspect of Lang’s Indian epic as it is the women who prove instrumental in rescuing Harald and foiling the villains. Another of Seetha’s crucial skills is her dancing, specifically an ability to express herself through her body and communicate with nature and, it is implied, the gods. This is underlined in the film’s most celebrated scene wherein the priests force Seetha into a sort of trial by dance in front of a poisonous cobra. If her soul is deemed pure, the snake will spare her life, otherwise the gods will have their judgement. This sequence wherein imported Hollywood star Debra Paget dances wearing an incredibly skimpy silver costume, attempting to seduce the snake with her gyrating motions, is among the most erotic in cinema. Admittedly the cobra is not especially convincing, but viewers are unlikely to be eyeing the snake while Debra Paget is onscreen. It has been said that Lang’s films concern themselves with the chaos lurking beneath tranquil surface of reality, but The Indian Tomb reaches beyond the delirium of sex and violence to conclude on a note of compassion and redemption.
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.