Snake Eyes

“Howdy, Mr Lang!”

Siegfried fights the fearsome friendly dragon in Fritz Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN. The German effects crew were very fond of their life-sized mechanical fire-breathing dragon, operated not by pneumatics and remote control, but by a gang of sweltering Germans crowded in the belly of the beast. Not animatronics, so much as Germanimatronics.

But! Impressive as the contraption is, one can’t help but feel sympathy for the mighty mythic lizard, innocently lapping at a pool when Siegfried, pig-headedly intent on mayhem, comes gallumphing up and whacks the poor critter with his broadsword. And the reason we feel this way, I suggest, is the overall air of wounded innocence projected by the vast reptile, and this is all because of his eyes.

You see, unlike every reptile in the natural world, the monster has been outfitted with two eyes which face front, rather than to the side, giving him stereoscopic vision and making him appear more simian than reptilian as far as his facial alignment goes. While it’s never entirely certain how truly sympathetic Lang intends Siegfried to be (and it’s more than likely that matters of sympathy appeared quite irrelevant to the meister with this particular material), it does seem unfortunate that he’s allowed an inappropriate anthropomorphism to kind of de-fang his reptilian menace. Still, that’s not a mistake he would ever make again.

Oh dear. What IS it with Lang and these eyes-front serpentine puppets?

As with Pete’s Siegfried’s dragon, the snake is one of those things you initially might have to forgive in Lang’s Indian diptych (THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR & THE INDIAN TOMB), but really he’s part of the rich texture that makes things so enjoyable, visible wires and all. Lang’s penultimate project/s are not only, in all probability, the best thing ever if you’re a ten-year-old German schoolboy, but an apotheosis of pulp exotica that somehow reaches the level of poetry through a high-serious approach to material that is, on the face of it, the sheerest tripe.

I guess the feeling was that to make the snake look properly hypnotized by Debra Paget’s sexy dance (as who wouldn’t be?), it was necessary for it to face forward and seem to give her its undivided attention. But again, the effect is hilariously human.

Never at a loss for a theory, I’m going to suggest that Lang identified with these cold-blooded co-stars. He does have a certain serpentine quality himself, like a monocled adder with a cigarette in its gob. And so he wanted them to look as much like him as possible. The dragon is young Lang, fiery and virile. The snake is old Lang, attenuated and half-blind, only able to gaze awe-struck upon the gyrating humanoid before him.

In that sense, the story of Lang’s serpent is the story of us all.

Thanks to Masters of Cinema for these beauties, which you can, and should, now buy ~

Der Tiger von Eschnapur / Das indische Grabmal (Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic) [Masters of Cinema] [DVD]


26 Responses to “Snake Eyes”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    A few years after her sexy Oriental dance number, the lovely Debra Paget married a Texan millionaire, found Jesus and retired from the screen.

    She now hosts a born-again Christian chat show on a local cable channel in Houston.

  2. As long as she still does a sexy snake dance in the intermission, I have no problem with that.

  3. Der Tiger vons Escnapur/ Das Indische Grabmal is Lang’s Absolute Masterpiece.

    “Techinically” we’ve come quite a far pace from the dragon in Die Niebelungen to today’s CGI effects. But it takes a real artist to make a creature work — beyond the Cloverfield level. And that’s what Malick has accomplished with his dinosaurs in The Tree of Life.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    David E – thanks for having the nerve to say the Indian Epic is Lang’s masterpiece. Would you believe I totally agree?

  5. Yes I would.

    And so do Jean-Pierre Oudart and Luc Moullet.

  6. There’s also Peter the Monkey. Does he fit in here?

    there’s such a profound hilarity in the robust symbol of feminine virility, of the looming sculpture, against such a pathetic symbol of male virility(the snake).

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    The dragon in SIGFRIED’S DEATH inspired a similar creature in Douglas Fairbanks/Raoul Walsh’s THIEF OF BAGDAD which also took inspiration from DESTINY. It’s fascinating how Fritz Lang’s silent epics invented the Special Effects Science-Fiction/Fantasy genre. What’s equally fascinating is that the main difference between SIGFRIED’S DEATH and KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE is the lack of fantasy elements in the second part.

    I was reading SIRK ON SIRK recently and he has interesting things to say about Lang. He prefers the American movies(like myself and most of the Hitchcocko-Hawksiens) but he said that Lang’s INDIAN EPIC is a return to the style of the silent films.

  8. Yes, Das Indisch Grabmal restores the cinema to an age when suspension of disbelief was entirely beside the point.

    Of course, I’m obsessed with Peter the Monkey, and wrote about him for Masters of Cinema’s Mabuse collection.

    If the effects spectacular can be traced back to Lang, then it’s but a short step to Melies, whose man-powered mechanical South Polar Giant is a clear precursor of the dragon, and a beautiful uncanny piece of work in its own right. Saw it as a kid and it plunged straight into my unconscious.

  9. Lang studied archtecture before becoming a filmmaker, and Der Tiger von Escnapur/ Das Insiche Grabmal is from first to last an architectural studyt of an “air castle” created entirely through cinematic means.

    While the first version was a silent — written by Lang — it was directed by Joe May. A very good director.

    But not Lang.

  10. It took years of cinematic practice for Lang to achieve the level directorial elegance that vivifies the mise en scene of this 2-part creation.

  11. You had me at “Germanitronics”.

    Which impels me to lead you to a current ‘Nazis on the moon’ film production here in Aus called Iron Sky which has to be seen to be believed:

  12. Christopher Says:

    wonder how many other snakes stood erect in the theater back when Debra Paget whipped off her robe? =:oo

  13. That director sure doesn’t sound so bright…

    I don’t know how smart Lang was, but he was awesomely talented. And maybe the talent bypassed his conscious thinking a lot of the time. The stuff he thought through doesn’t seem as good as the more instinctive things. The idea of destiny comes through very strongly in the work, but he tried to resist it and so you get the dumb ending of The Woman in the Window.

    The Indian films are almost brainless on one level but utterly sophisticated on another.

    Thinking of Nazis on the moon leads me back to Lang and Woman on the Moon…

  14. The “brianlessness” of the Indian films sems positively Aristotelian when compared to Lucas and Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series — which is a variaton on the “Bo’s Own” mulch from which the Lang proceeds.It’s in the mise en scene from which true sophistication proceeds — especially the last shot of Tiger and the climax of Tomb.

  15. Oh, Spielberg’s film is just insultingly racist, pure and simple. All the more unforgivable since it’s heavily derived from Gunga Din, a movie which takes care to treat its Thuggee villains with respect.

    You have two EXCELLENT typos there, btw. Brianless would be my favourite neologism, except that Bo’s Own (or bozone?) trumps it.

  16. AHA!

    The only thing I like in the Spielbergs is Mrs. Spielberg’s rendition of “Anything Goes” at the top of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This number, plus 1941, indicates (to me at least) that his true forte is musical comedy.

  17. Spielberg had a keen interest in doing a musical, but apparently he found this number so exhausting he’s backed away from it. That, plus the failure of 1941 have served to deprive of us what could be a really fun movie — he might have made Chicago, for instance, which would have been a lot better than Rob Marshall’s parade of editing tics.

  18. The musical I’d love for him to bring to the screen is Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along

  19. Arthur S. Says:

    My favourite bit in The Indian Epic is the second part in the cave where Debra Paget hides, it’s an objet d’art in itself.

    I always thought that Lang’s intelligence was visual and architectural rather than intellectual. Murnau for instance was an intellectual, he had a Ph.D. In interviews, Lang said that he collected newspaper articles in scrapbooks and a lot of stuff in his movies come from that. I think that explains the huge role mass media and more generally information plays in his movies.

  20. Lang also studied American speech via the newspaper funnies. He was definitely a 20th century mass media man, as While the City Sleeps shows.

  21. Th scene in the Indian Tomb that really struck me, when I first saw it, was the discovery of the subterranean leper colony by one of the German architects.
    Strong echoes of both the workers in Metropolis and concentration camp footage, and for a 50’s German audience.

  22. Yes, that’s pretty striking. I think it’s derived fairly faithfully from the Joe May version, even though the plot is otherwise often different (Lang removed all the unambiguously supernatural elements from the remake).

  23. david wingrove Says:

    Highlight of the Joe May version is Conrad Veidt as the bejewelled Indian rajah. It may be his campest performance ever…and that’s saying something!

  24. jhendrie Says:

    Another Lang/Snake connection: that line he has in Le Mepris. “Cinemascope isn’t meant for human beings. Just for snakes and funerals.”

  25. Indeed! Snakes and Funerals should’ve been the title of this piece.

    Cinemascope is ideal for RECLINING human beings, as Negulseco could tell you. Of course it’s ironic that Godard has him say it in a Scope film.

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