NYFF: Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur and Michael Haneke’s Amour


Today’s NYFF report is a doubleheader from our Nick Pinkerton: a pair of long looks at the old and the new.

The Tiger of Eschnapur
Directed by Fritz Lang
Screened Tuesday, October 2nd

Still functioning today in the 17th arondissement, Paris’ Cinéma MacMahon — the subject of a seven-film sidebar tribute at the New York Film Festival — made its name by screening the influx of until-recently-banned American films after the Liberation. Such programming attracted a passionate, partisan cine-club clientele whose ringleader, a young man named Pierre Rissient, articulated an idiosyncratic pantheon of Le carré d’as (The Four Aces)–Joseph Losey, Otto Preminger, Raoul Walsh, and Fritz Lang–whose photographs eventually graced the theater’s lobby.

The now 76-year-old Rissient–critic, programmer, distributor, Godard’s assistant director on Breathless, hobbled but with memory and enthusiasm undimmed, was present to emcee the NYFF’s MacMahon program. The lineup included 1951’s The Prowler (Losey), 1945’s Objective, Burma! and ’47’s Pursued (Walsh), 1949’s Whirlpool (Preminger) and, last but not least, The Tiger of Eschnapur, the first half of Lang’s penultimate work, 1959’s Indian Epic, which concludes with The Indian Tomb.

The Tiger of Eschpanur depicts the love triangle between a Eurasian temple dancer (Debra Paget), a European architect (Paul Hubschmid), and the Western-educated Maharahaja who has summoned the architect to his kingdom, to build his people a modern hospital (Walter Reyer, leading a cast of Western actors in brownface). The source material is a 1917 novel, Das Indische Grabmal, written by the woman who would become Lang’s second wife, the stage actress/ authoress/ scenarist Thea von Harbou. Lang had become involved with von Harbou in the late teens when adapting Das Indische Grabmal–a project which director Joe May would eventually take over, to Lang’s rankling dismay, on the excuse that Lang was too young to handle a two-part, megabudget epic.

After a string of reputation-making collaborations (Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, M), Lang and Von Harbou’s marriage and artistic alliance broke up when Lang emigrated to escape the same Nazi party that his wife was pledging her loyalty to (She died in 1954.) After May’s 1921 two-parter, Das Indische Grabmal was re-filmed by Richard Eichberg under the Nazis in 1938–and then in 1958, a European producer, a Polish Jew named Arthur Brauner, offered Lang another chance at his lost film. After over twenty years of working in America, the unemployed director jumped at the opportunity to return to the land and subject matter of his youth, and to take another crack at the film he’d always regarded as “stolen” by May.

Lang’s Indian Epic was shot with a German dialogue track and a German-Italian-American cast on tinsel-and-spangle lapidary sets in Berlin, supplemented with location shoots in the Indian state of Rajasthan, taking in the Lake Palace in Udaipur and its Lily Ponds. As Brauner signed off on a nearly 5 million mark budget, Lang was allowed to return not only to the material, but to something approximating the scale of filmmaking that he’d been accustomed to as a one of the leading lights of German silent cinema, before perfecting a pared-down, sometimes skeletal style in Hollywood’s studio lots.

Does Lang’s The Tiger of Eschpanur take place in 1917? In 1959? It’s indeterminate–and irrelevant, for the setting is really a India of the collective storybook imagination, its imagery a decoupage of spelean underground passageways and living-dead lepers, feats of chivalrous daring, fakirs ascending charmed ropes to no-where, moonlit rendez-vous, perilous forests patrolled by brigands and man-eaters, and deserts carpeted in red dust (Admirers of Spielberg’s Temple of Doom: It’s all here.)

Throughout, Lang constantly endeavors to beguile and delight the eye, to inspire the viewer with a sense of wonderment–“childlike” wonderment, if you prefer, though the grand, harmonious symmetry of the film’s design could only be the result of a lifetime’s diligent artistic practice. (Self-identifying through his architect hero, Lang had early training as an engineer, and liked to exaggerate these credentials to buttress his reputation as cinema’s “master builder.”)

The flaw in this gem is a warning against the excesses of fantasy: Richard Angst, the cinematographer shooting Tiger‘s primal fairytale imagery, provides a connection to the recent German past whose own odious mythology Lang had fled, whose eclectic occult mysticism had perverted the Hindu Swastika… for Angst cut his teeth shooting the mystical “mountain movies” of Leni Reifenstahl.

Though The Tiger of Eschpanur and the MacMahon series both have come and gone at Lincoln Center, the Indian Epic is available in toto both on OOP Fantoma DVD in the US and on the UK’s Masters of Cinema label. They should not go unseen by anyone interested in magic and myth in the movies, with apologies to Parker Tyler.

The enchanted Indian setting, state-of-the-art special-effects tigers, and resurrection of silent-screen spectacle in Lang’s picture beg at least a passing comparison to the NYFF’s Opening Night film, Ang Lee’s The Life of Pi. Most of the smart moviegoers that I know kept Lee’s movie at arm’s length–its ruminations on spirituality have, admittedly, an affinity to those bumper-stickers that spell out “Co-Exist” in multifaith symbols–but Life of Pi is transfixing whenever it resigns itself to dealing with the practical conundrum of surviving at sea with a hungry Bengal tiger. Still, one may detect kitsch in Lee’s lost-at-sea light shows, and such razzle-dazzle simply will not do if one wants to rack up the Palmes d’Or… (Nick Pinkerton)

Directed by Michael Haneke

Lang’s Maharahaja enjoys holding court on the subject of the Occidental sense of time: “Haste,” he scolds, “is a European vice.” Would he ever be surprised at the direction the European art film has taken!

A half-decade Lang’s junior, Michael Haneke is a fellow Viennese, but free of any trace of the European vice. The unifying sensation of Haneke’s slow, ratchet-turning movies is the pained anticipation of an Inevitable Awful Event–let us call it the ‘IAE’–an event which the experienced Haneke viewer understands is part of the bargain upon going in.

The IAE breaks through the thin-ice surface of Haneke’s narratives, filmmaking which is invariably reserved, objective–in a word, “cold”–and the plunge which follows the crack in the ice puts across a harsh lesson. Haneke’s lessons, which never yet have confirmed man’s higher opinion of himself, are the entire point of his pedantic filmmaking; the individual unit of “shot” or “scene” is rarely a source of pleasure or pain or conflict or resolution in itself, but a flat and neutral plane against which the castigation can stand out all the more starkly.

With Amour, Haneke places his IAE out front–the IAE from whose bourn no traveler returns. One of the film’s principles is introduced as a corpse under the titlecard–O, irony!–laid out on the bed as for a wake, skin purplish-white and brittle like parchment. The lesson for this year’s Cannes jury: Death be not pretty.

81-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist, My Night at Maud’s) and 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima mon amour) play an elderly couple, Georges and Anne, once professionally connected to the world of classical piano music, somewhat lofty in the tower of unbreachable, civilized mutual contentment which is their Parisian apartment, where the entirety of the film takes place.

Like the couple playing a guessing game with opera CDs at the beginning of Funny Games (1997), the world of high culture is Georges and Anne’s natural element; she is identified as a former piano teacher, like Isabelle Huppert in, well, The Piano Teacher (2001)–and Huppert appears here as the couple’s middle-aged daughter. Georges and Anne are, in fact, but the latest link in a chain of Georgs/Georges and Annas/Annes who run through Haneke’s filmography–much as Claude Chabrol busily re-arranged the triumvirate of Hélène/ Paul/ Charles through his work of the late ’60s/ ’70s, though with considerably more stagnant results.

Georges and Anne’s long life of connubial harmony is thrown into discord when she’s hit by a stroke which leaves half of her body collapsed and useless. This is the first in a succession of attacks which leave Georges to minister a diminishing Anne through her slow decline, his fierce will for her to live pitted against her increasing will to die. Haneke elides the moments of medical crisis, focusing instead on details of daily caretaking, the process by which a home becomes a hospice. I cannot recall the words “Je t’aime” being spoken aloud in the two hours of Amour, but they are instead constantly reiterated in acts of consideration, tenderness, and homely ass-wiping.

Trintignant, an intensely-private performer full of clenched, concentrated feeling, is at his most touching as a man vainly trying to decipher his wife’s garbled speech so as to continue their conversation by any means; fiercely noble when standing up for her violated dignity and dismissing a condescending nurse. This is a triumph not only over the enforced helplessness of infirmity, but over the deliberate monotony of Haneke’s sickbed vigil, filmed in static compositions that look through the apartment’s enfiladed doorways as Trintignant putters in and out of sight, the director never violating his vow of objectivity to force the viewer’s eye.

Haneke’s distance is meant, perhaps, to allow viewers space to contemplate their own mortality; I found myself using it to remember movies which had something more to them: A snatch of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major D899 No. 3 recalled the same piece in Bertrand Blier’s 1989 Too Beautiful for You; the process of slow physical catabolism telescoped by abrupt narrative leaps, Maurice Pialat’s 1974 Le Gueule ouverte (which sparks off a hundred other ideas besides); the subject of an aging couple, Leo McCarey’s 1937 Make Way for Tomorrow–a film so mawkish as to suggest that there might be something worthwhile in sharing one’s life with another before the return to dust.

It is a much-repeated line that sentimentality of the sort that McCarey trades in is “easy,” whereas the sort of withholding filmmaking that Haneke does is “hard.” If this is so, why do I see so many films of the latter type “pulled off”–it is very difficult to make a mistake, after all, when one keeps one’s distance–and so few of the former?

Both Tiger of Eschpanur and Passion indulge in some avian symbolism: Paget’s kept dancer commiserates with a bird in a golden cage, signifying her own gilded imprisonment; Trintignant follows around a stray pigeon which has become trapped in the apartment, significant of his wife’s soul–I hesitate to use the word with regards to a starkly materialist film–longing to be set free. Lang’s usage is playful, recognizing the familiarity of the device while reaffirming its poignancy, with the same false naivete which is the film’s language; Haneke’s is solemn, ceremonious, accompanied by the cathedral hush which is his preferred working condition. I bring this parallel up because the elevation of the thought does not differ, so much as the means of delivery.

Should I go on to mention that Lang’s final testament, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, is a more potent cogitation on modern surveillance society than Haneke’s Caché? I will cede the last words to enthusiasms more youthful than my own. Before Eschpanur, Monsieur Rissient recounted a meeting with Lang at the Hotel George V on the Place Charles de Gaulle, after Parisian critics had given a lukewarm appraisal to the director’s Indian Epic–Lang would’ve been 70, Haneke’s age today.

Rissient complemented Lang on a film which was a great summing up: “They say when you are dying, you can see your entire life flash before your eyes, and I feel this in your film,” to which Lang responded–and here Rissient shouts in a Teutonic voice–“But I am not dying!” And he is still not dead–while Haneke, like his heroine in Amour, has been laid on the slab from the beginning. (Nick Pinkerton)

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