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Indian Tomb, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Finishes with a bang."
4 stars

All three German film adaptations of Thea von Harbou's novel "Das indische Grambal" have been split into two parts, and it's an amusing bit of happenstance that many Indian films would later follow the same sort of structure, with a second half that jumps ahead or redirects what had been going on before, though as one film with an intermission rather than two separate admissions. The change in focus does Fritz Lang's take on the material some good, although it may just be a matter of it mostly being done with set-up early and then getting things done.

Though last seen unconscious in the desert, star-crossed lovers Harald (Paul Hubschmid) and Seetha (Debra Paget) are found by a group of peaceful traders, though Maharadjah Chandra (Walther Reyer) still intends to have Seetha's hand and Harald's head. Back in the palace, Harald's partner Walter Rhode (Claus Holm) has arrived with his wife (and Harald's sister) Irene (Sabine Bethmann), who finds Chandra's story about her brother being out on a tiger hunt suspicious, especially since Chandra has told Rhode to design an elaborate tomb for Seetha, saying it will be a testament to his love even after he intends to seal her in it alive. This plan does not particularly please his brother Ramigani, whose plan to purge his brother requires him to actually offend the people by marrying this dancer so far below his station.

It's a messy and occasionally ridiculous set of plots and occasionally more than screenwriter Werner Jörg Lüddecke's script can handle - major threads carried over from the first movie disappear for long stretches and Lang hasn't really established the dynamics of Eschnapur well enough for all the forces of tradition in play by the end to be more than arbitrary rules established for plotting convenience. The implicit colonial attitudes where morally superior Europeans must prevail over brutal and treacherous natives is in somewhat sharper relief as well.

Along those lines, it probably shouldn't escape notice that Seetha seems to become more Caucasian as the film goes on; aside from a lighter makeup application, the girl who so pointedly considered herself of India even upon being confronted with her father most likely being white now sighs as the prospect of voyaging to Europe with Harald and discards her faith in her pantheon when it looks like her offerings haven't protected Harald. To be sure, it's probably good for Debra Paget and the character she plays - this hardened Seetha is less likely to shrink from confrontation and lets Paget take hold of a scene in way she seldom had the chance to do in the first part, and Paget winds up capable of holding a scene when given a chance.

The rest of the cast gets to give more engaging performances as well; the mask is off for both Chandra and those conspiring against him, and both Walther Reyer as the Maharajah and René Deltgen, Jachen Brockmann, and Valéry Inkijinoff as those after his power get to revel in their rage and ambition. Perhaps most importantly, the Rhodes as a pair are very much an upgrade on Harald as the Europeans trying to navigate the foreign intrigues they are surrounded with: The slightly foppish but intelligent and principled air Claus Holm gives Walter Rhode at the start becomes pained as he confronts comfort with wielding the power of life and death, while Sabine Bethmann nicely captures the resourcefulness and bravery that lurks behind Irene's elegant seeming innocence. They get to have a more interesting rapport with Jochen Blume's local engineer than Paul Hubschmid did in the first, and it doesn't hurt that Blume has more to do with his Asagara torn between the loyalty a king requires and his respect for his new friends. And while Harald is sidelined for much of the movie, Hubschmid does good physical work as a worn-down man of action.

The film could maybe do a bit better in terms of action - the big showstopper is initially a dance number for Paget that takes place against the same backdrop as the one in the first part, albeit with her wearing something that may or may not technically count as a costume and sharing the screen with a questionable snake puppet. Most surprisingly, the audience never actually gets the payoff of the magnificent tomb of the title, although Lang and company do the Saturday-serial stuff with everybody racing through underground passages and setting dynamite and such. Lang may not have had the room to flesh out everything he included in these two relatively short movies, but he pays them off in decisive, satisfying fashion.

This wouldn't quite be Lang's last hurrah - he would co-write and direct the first entry in the 1960s Dr. Mabuse series the next year - and never quite reaches the heights of his silent epics. It is, however, a mostly-entertaining return to the sort of thing that put him on the map.

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originally posted: 04/07/20 13:40:13
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  DVD: 16-Oct-2001

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