Archive for November 3, 2021

A trick of the light

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2021 by dcairns

One thing that fascinates about Fritz Lang’s late duology The Indian Epic — THE TIGER OF ESHNAPUR and THE INDIAN TOMB — is that the orientalist fantasy of its story and cardboard characterisation is so utterly pulp. Lang’s was an inescapably melodramatic sensibility, and freed from the traditions of Hollywood, he returned to the attitudes of his silent work. Even active the contribution of his former wife, Thea Von Harbou, who had perhaps a little more interest in character psychology, is gone. So the last German films may represent Lang in his purest form.

Accepting Lang’s greatness means accepting his focus on sensational literature and comic book narrative style, which combines in him with a dark, weird sensibility and incredible aesthetics. While the Indian Epic falls down in a few places — there’s a terrible weak battle in the throne room of part 2 — evidently, time and money ran out, and the extras could not be induced to struggle convincingly — it fits Welles’ description of “the beginning and end of every shot” in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT’s Battle of Shrewsbury sequence, before editing tightened it: “pathetic in all the wrong senses of the word” — but otherwise, the two films are stunningly lovely.

And there’s a weird blunder early on: the disappearing child. Lang sets up a tragedy — a small child runs out of shot, is pursued by a tiger, and eaten off-camera. While it’s quite possible the ruthless auteur would have been satisfied to actually loose a big cat upon an expendable child, more compassionate heads have prevailed and so the gag is accomplished by having the kid run through frame, stopping the camera, and filming the tiger’s pursuit as a separate piece of film, its victim long removed to safety. The idea would have been to jump-cut the two shots together, the join being rendered invisible or at least non-obvious by the fact that we’re looking at an empty set, nothing in motion after the kid leaves and before the pussycat appears. There are other sequences in the film where tiny jumps are visible, as Lang tightens the pauses between characters’ entrances and exits.

For some reason, a straight cut wasn’t working — possibly the camera got nudged marginally out of position and so the angles matched less than perfectly. So a dissolve has been introduced. This is unfortunate, since cheap lab work has resulted in all The Indian Epic’s dissolves being clunky, the colour changing as soon as the dissolve begins: to save money, only the part of the shot that’s dissolving has been duped, resulting in a very visible and abrupt change of image quality, a jump-cut of colour. Some filmmakers, like Nick Ray in JOHNNY GUITAR, got around this by filming their dissolves in-camera.

But the dissolve has also been ludicrously mistimed, so that we don’t mix from one empty frame to another — we actually begin to dissolve while the child is still in shot. He fades from view, as if some unseen James Doohan is pushing a slider and beaming him up. Pretty poor. Part of what makes Lang so impressive, perhaps, is that not only are his triumphs quite idiosyncratic, personal, unique, so are his lapses. A Langian screw-up is not the kind anyone else would be likely to make.

On rewatching, I notice that the little dog the kid is chasing ALSO vanishes by jump-dissolve, as if the same bit of alleyway always has that vanishing effect on everyone who passes through it. Perhaps one of those chronosynclastic infundibula you hear about.

But that’s a quibble. I really want to talk about the weird spotlights. Throughout the two films, Lang is picking out key elements in his shots with a slightly amber-orange light which has no naturalistic reason for being there. A subtle spotlight or reflector effect might be introduced invisibly, but not if it’s a different colour from the surrounding daylight. It’s attractive and totally theatrical, a lovely idea.

A bellringer up a tower is bathed in his own little sunset.

When Harald and Seetha collapse in the desert, the patch of sand they’re headed for is already neatly picked out for them in an amber glow.

For all I know there was simply a shortage of half-blue filters for the lights on location, necessary to balance electric light with daylight — you get an orange look contrasting with the more blueish surrounding light — there are pitfalls in ascribing intent to any film effect. But you can still admire the effect itself.

And, towards the end of the second film, it suddenly transforms from a theatrical image into a quasi-naturalistic one. Our hero, architect Harald Berger, the strongest man in India, has been imprisoned in a dungeon dark, dank and donk. A villain appears at a high window to look in on him by torchlight. And the familiar spotlight hits Harald, only this time it has a plausible alibi.

Tom Gunning suggests that the architecture in Lang’s films often acts as a kind of “destiny machine” — like the “propitious rooms” collected by Michael Redgrave’s architect in SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, his spaces create the actions of his characters, channelling them towards the most dramatic outcome. So it makes sense that a lighting style already present in the film should eventually link arms with the physical shape of a scene.

Oh, and the set-up is also one we’ve seen before: when Harald spies on the forbidden temple ceremony in film 1, he occupies a high window from which to look down into the big space, exactly like Gustav Frohlich spying on the religious meeting in METROPOLIS, and exactly like a projectionist looking through his little window at the audience and film below.

I’d also add that, while the city/palace of Eshnapur here does indeed behave like a classic “destiny machine,” the titular tomb is an even better example — it’s a tomb being built for a living person, and the completion of the tomb will signal the execution of its intended occupant. It’s the most propitious, Langian building imaginable, rising stone by stone as a structure of death, like the sand accumulating in the bottom of the Wicked Witch’s hour-glass.