|Vintage Pulp||Mar 5 2016|
Just point me to the palest of your women. She's the one I want.
This Dutch poster promotes De indische graftempel, which was originally a West German production called De indische grabmal, and later given the English titles The Indian Tomb and The Tomb of Love. Made by Fritz Lang, this was the fourth pass at a 1918 novel by Thea von Harbou, but this version strays far from the source material. The book is about an architect commissioned by a Maharaja to build a fantastic tomb, but who later discovers it's for the Maharaja's wife, who will be killed for being a generally unfit spouse and placed in the structure as soon as it's completed.
This is an interesting plot premise, and as a bonus it must have made for some fun jokes between Lang and von Harbou, since they had been married for a time but were divorced when they worked together here. The adaptation they came up with relegates the architect to secondary status, and instead focuses on the wife Seetha, played by Debra Paget, who is having an affair with a Western lover named Harald, played by Paul Hubschmid.
Just to get right to the heart of it, this isn't one of Lang's best efforts. Despite good location work and excellent sets, the romance is silly, the adventure elements are uninspiring, and there's no emotional realism at all. But the movie is instructive in one area—it could be a case study for this year's Academy Awards race controversy. Every Indian role of consequence is played by a white person in shoe polish. This was the norm back then and it happened in hundreds if not thousands of films.
Now, after nearly a century of such silliness, some people are actually offended at demands that ethnic roles be played by ethnic actors, and lead roles be diversified. Those demands are beyond fair. For decades nobody made even a peep about white actors in brown makeup, let alone the industrywide denial of good roles to actors of color, but as soon as someone says maybe Joseph Fiennes shouldn't play Michael Jackson in a film or Star Wars should have a black lead it's suddenly racism against whites. You almost have to laugh. What's also funny is that Paget, though she's supposed to be Indian, is without dark coloration. This is another norm for the period—amidst the brown hordes the most beautiful woman is always the palest.
All that said, watching the spectacle of literally a dozen West German actors in brown make-up is actually quite funny in today's context. But the main attraction here is Paget, whose erotic dance routine before ranks of spray-tanned slaves and beneath a looming, twenty-foot-high, giant-boobed Hindu statue is one of cinema's great sequences. We don't mean great in terms of acting or dancing or directing. It's an immortal moment the same way Alicia Vikander looking at herself in a mirror in Ex Machina is, or Sharon Stone flashing her ragamuffin in Basic Instinct. It's one ofthose instances when mainstream filmmakers push everyone's comfort envelope and remind them that sex is actually the single most important aspect of all our lives. Save for a tiny subset of us, we all exist because of it, our existence can only be assured by having more of it, and pretending it isn't on all our minds much of the time is just a silly rule imposed by the people who conceived our civilizational costume party. In the envelope-pushing respect De indische graftempel is a roaring success. Otherwise, not so much. It premiered today in 1959.
West GermanyNetherlandsIndiaDe indische graftempelDe indische grabmalThe Indian TombThe Tomb of LoveFritz LangDebra PagetPaul HubschmidThea von Harbouposter artcinemamovie review