Franz Osten’s ‘the Light of Asia’ : A German-Indian film of Prince Buddha

Franz Osten’s ‘the Light of Asia’ : A German-Indian film of Prince Buddha – 1926

Carl-Erdmann Schonfeld

The Maharaja is a very progressive man but he will be even more progressive when he lends me his 50 elephants for my film. (Franz Osten, Mysore, 26 February 1929)

The Germans forgot him; the British interned him; Indian Cinema audiences loved him. Despite the fact that he was celebrated all over Europe before World War II, Franz Osten is hardly mentioned in film history books. Osten was a pioneer in the development of cinema. He took feature film production out of the studios into the world, and gave his films an authentic quality by combining documentary techniques with narratives drawn from the myths and legends of ancient India. His interest in India was shared by other Germans in the 1920s.

Hermann Hesse, for example, published his Western equivalent to Buddhism, Siddhartha; Brecht showed his interest in Buddhism in his Book of Transformations. Intellectuals in France and America shared this longing for far away countries. Lawrence in Arabia, Gaugin in the South Pacific, Antonin Artaud and Robert Flaherty with films like Moana or Nanook of the North suggest this fascination. There was a large audience hungry for exotic places. If one cannot afford to travel one can dream about it.

Franz Osten’s silent films tell Indian stories about the life of Buddha (The Light of Asia, 1926), dramatise the events that led to the construction of the Taj Mahal (Shiraz, 1928), and draw from Indian myths and legends, the Mahabarata (Throw of Dice, 1929) Osten contributed to increasing the understanding of eastern religions and offered a feast for the senses by showing elephants in festive decoration amid thousands of extras. His huge sets were ideal for escaping from reality: dark-skinned women aroused desire, associating sexuality with primitiveness.

The Light of Asia a unique collaboration which managed to satisfy the tastes of both German and Indian audiences began in 1924. The 28-year-old Indian solicitor Himansu Rai came to Munich in search of partners for series of films on world religions. He had studied law in Calcutta and London where as a student of Nobel Prize winner Rabrindranath Tagore he had also directed a theatre group that promised to revive Indian acting and theatre traditions. He had heard that the Passion Plays of Oberammergau were a showcase for German culture and now wanted to create the Indian equivalent.

In Europe as well as in the United States so-called “Orientals”, films with an oriental setting and subject matter, enjoyed substantial success. Ernst Lubitsch’s Sumurun (1920); and Joe May’s “Tiger of Eshnapur” and The Indian Tomb (both 1921) touched a desire for exotic tales. One associated India with gold and spices, streets teeming with people and exotic temples. The Orient promised spiritual Europeans spiritual release as well as earthly pleasures. But while May made his films in a studio just outside Berlin using German extras made up with shoe polish, Rai and Osten intended to show a “real” India. “No film can be truly artistic, or, I believe, really popular” Rai declared, “unless the out-of-date fakeries of background and camerawork are ruthlessly abandoned” [1]. Rai hoped that the West would give him technical assistance and distribute his film projects. In looking to make an Indian counterpart to the Passion Plays of Oberammergau, he settled on Osten.

Franz Ostermayr, later Franz Osten, was born in Munich in 1876. He trained to be a photographer like his father and gave acting a try. In 1907, he founded a travelling cinema called the “Original Physograph Company” together with his brother Peter Ostermayr, who later established the predecessor to Bavaria Studios, today one of Germany’s largest film studios. Amongst other films, he showed Life in India, a short documentary about the Munich carnival. The run was not very successful: three days after the opening, the projector exploded in flames. Osten decided to make films and in 1911 directed his first feature, Erna Valeska. His career was abruptly interrupted by the beginning of World War I. He worked first as a correspondent, then became a soldier. After the war Osten made peasant dramas like The War of the Oxen and Chain of Guilt for EMELKA in Munich.

At the same time India was going through a process of transformation. 1919 was the year of Gandhi’s first Satyagraha campaign. Many Indian artists were interested in liberating themselves from English colonial power in order to make audiences more aware of the roots of their own culture. Gandhi’s fight for independence encouraged Indian artists to strengthen their own identity and detach it from Imperial influences. The desire for national sovereignty led Himansu Rai to employ Europeans like Franz Osten in order to create connections with other countries that were independent of Great Britain and to train Indian technicians, artists and producers to Western standards.

In India itself there were 300 movie houses by 1926 [2] plus countless travelling cinemas, but 90 per cent of the films shown were imported from Hollywood [3], almost exclusively from Universal Studios. Indian material was rarely seen. Himansu Rai wanted to change this. The cinematic counterpart to the Passion Plays of Oberammergau had to be a story that could be shown in first-run metropolitan theatres, as well as the stretched sheets of the provincial travelling cinemas that were trying to bring to their audiences the sense of a great cultural past.

Rai managed to convince the conservative Munich film industry, which was already said to be “carefully, sometimes too carefully avoiding any experiment” [4] into contributing to his enterprise. Rai and EMELKA agreed to make a film on the life of Buddha. The Germans were to provide equipment, camera crew and the director, Franz Osten; Rai would provide the script, the actors, locations and all the capital necessary. On 26 February 1925, Osten and Rai, together with their cameramen, Willi Kiermeier and Josef Wirsching, and comedian Bertl Schultes, boarded a ship for India.

On 18 March they arrived in Bombay. There Osten began to shoot his first Indian film, Prem Sanyas – Die Leuchte Asiens – The Light of Asia, the first German-Indian co-production. The film tells the story of Prince Gautama Buddha, who according to an omen will “follow the sad and lowly path of self denial and pious pain” if he ever faces old age, sickness or death. To prevent this, the King keeps him imprisoned behind the high walls of his palace. One day Gautama leaves his golden cage and is confronted with human misery. At night a revelation comes to him in a dream. A mysterious voice bids him to choose between the carefree life with his beloved wife Gopa and a life in pursuit of eternal truth. In the early morning hours Gautama leaves the court of the King. Attacking common religious practices of sacrifice and self-humiliation, he soon builds up a sizeable following. A young woman kneels before him asking to be received amongst his followers. The woman is Gopa.

One story in the memoirs of assistant director Bertl Schultes, illustrates some of the problems Osten and his colleagues encountered when shooting The Light of Asia:

No single day was to be lost, as the film had to be shot before the beginning of the Monsoon season… On most shooting days the temperature reached 55 degrees centigrade… After many rehearsals we were just ready for a take employing six horses. When [Osten] was just about to give the signal to start shooting, he saw another Indian opening an umbrella. He ran towards him but suffered a heat stroke on the way back. We carried him into a tent. Luckily a doctor was there, so was plenty of ice, and he recovered consciousness. I finished the take, the camera man made another. I also had a dizzy spell and, though being massaged with ice, could not get up for 2 hours. Meanwhile, Osten was back on his feet and continued working, his head covered with ice … [5]

Buddha’s “fight between love and denial” [6] combined a script written by the Indian playwright Narinjan Pal based on Erwin Arnold’s poem The Light of Asia [7] with images of state elephants decorated with real gold and jewels, wise Yogis filmed for the first time, and authentic lepers. The pictures of “life and death” in India gained a special quality through the authenticity of Osten’s footage: the priests and the beggars were played by people who occupied these positions in real life. One episode that Osten notes in his diary illustrates his striving for authenticity:

The next day I needed a man who … dies in the film. I explained this … to my assistant director… He knew a suitable man, exactly what we were looking for… But the man could not get up, so we had to go and see him… The car stopped, he called a man with a lantern… He waved at me and held the lantern in the face of a man who was breathing only with great difficulty. Horrified I stepped aside and told him that I could not employ him for my film. But he promised me, ‘this man will certainly die tomorrow during the shooting – and the film will become very true to life’. After that he spoke a few words in Hindi to the ill man, who also showed me through gestures that he was definitely going to die the next day. Happy people who leave this world so easily! [8]

The extra died two days after shooting the scene [9].

In India the film was rejected for lack of credibility. The cost of 171,423 Rupees [10] made it ten times as expensive as the average Indian film. Even after amendments in the contract with EMELKA, the film lost Rs 50,000. In America the film lacked success as “motion picture audiences in America do not care to pay an admission fee to see a prince become a beggar” [12]. But The Light of Asia was celebrated in Germany: “A foreign world where legend and reality are not yet torn apart … – this amazing Indian world emerges in front of our eyes” [13]; “A Document of German skill and the German sense of duty” [14]. Another German critic noted: “Every now and then we see a film and know, that it was not just made for the money, but because of a spiritual principle, a bit of idealism” [15]. The fairy-tale look “as from A Thousand and one Nights” [16] was admired as much as the “documentary” quality of the images. Himansu Rai, who apart from managing the production also acted the lead role, was said to have “divine properties” [17]. In 1926 The Light of Asia was shown to King George V and the press reported a positive reaction by the Royal Family [18].

After a few crime stories, including The Most Cunning Woman of Berlin and The Lady in Black, Osten shot the social drama The Villa by the Zoo, with Hans Albers in Berlin. In 1928 he returned to India for a second time and shot Throw of the Dice and Shiraz, the story of the Taj Mahal: Shiraz falls in love with his step-sister Selima, but when she is sold to the court of the King, the Prince also falls in love with her. It turns out that she is of royal descent. Prince Khurram marries her and after her death commissions a monument to commemorate her. The architect is Shiraz; the monument is the Taj Mahal. “From a far away land arrives this song of a great love, and for a few hours – or just minutes – we can lose our belief in the progress of mankind and watch this atavistic eroticism in a mixture of man’s longing (Herrengeluste) and fairy tale purity” [19] claimed one German trade reviewer. Shiraz was celebrated not only in Germany but also in India. The Illustrated Weekly of India wrote of Shiraz “Excellent … Here is a sphere which opens a whole world to Indian talent” [20].

Throw of the Dice was based on a tale from the Mahabarata. Shot in the town of Ajmer, a place of pilgrimage for both Muslim and Hindu, the film is in a deeper sense about the recognition that “all the splendour and pomp of this existence is nothing but soulless tinsel” [21]. A Berlin critic claimed: “Those Indians aren’t acting, they really are” [22]. “Osten filmed the wonderland of India like nobody before”, according to Indian film director Satyajit Rai, who found in Osten’s work, “a decided penchant for realism” [23].

The introduction of sound thwarted plans for a fourth Indian silent film by Franz Osten and Himansu Rai. The project was not shot with sound as “it would have looked bad if Indians talked in German” [24]. Afterwards Osten shot Bavarian peasant dramas, Heimatfilme, with titles such as Under the Spell of the Mountains, Prince Seppl, or Judas from Tyrol with Fritz Rasp, who had gathered experience in representing evil when he appeared in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). In 1934 Himansu Rai took Osten back to India where he shot seventeen more Hindi films – without understanding a word of the language. They are mostly based on stories about two lovers tragically separated by the traditional caste system. Using popular drama, these films also include subversive messages encoded in revolutionary icons such as spinning wheels and portraits of some of the protagonists of the Indian independence movement. Whilst these symbols were not recognised by the British censors, they communicated an identifiable political ideology to Hindi audiences. Amongst them are such classics Achhut Kanya [Die Unberuhrbare – The Untouchables], completed in 1936, an outspoken attack on the caste system. This film was supposedly screened at Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda in Berlin [25].

Osten joined the Nazi Party in 1936. Therefore in the fall of 1939 he was interned as a German national by the British Colonial Government. His last film, Kangan, had to be completed by his Indian assistants. Because of his age and the influence of British friends, he was released in 1940 and returned to Germany. The same year Himansu Rai unexpectedly died. Back in Munich Osten became head of the Bavaria Studios’s casting department; he set up a film archive for the studio. After 1945 he managed a spa in Bad Aibling, in Bavaria. In 1956, totally forgotten, he died at the age of eighty.

Osten deeply influenced the Indian cinema. Nimai Gosh, a founder of Indian realist cinema, continues to identify with Osten’s style [26]. Today, of course, Hindi film and television are hardly known for their realism. Just the opposite – the Indian myths and legends that Osten put onto the screen have now been trivialized as soap operas.

Osten’s best-known film, The Light of Asia, beautifully restored by India’s National Film Archive, was shown at the Pordenone Film Festival in 1994. The film itself retains its power, both for its passionate portrayal of Prince Buddha by Himansu Rai, as well as its numerous realist touches [27]. All the more impressive when one remembers that at best only two per cent of nearly 1300 films shot in India between 1913 and 1934 have survived, thanks in part to the terrible fires in two of Calcutta’s largest nitrate vaults in the 1940s. One looks today to The Light of Asia for its aesthetic achievement, for what it tells us about the romantic appeal of Indian mysticism to many Germans in the 1920s, and for its visual setting, representing an identifiable percentage of all surviving film footage from India in the 1920s.

Correspondence: Carl-Erdmann Schonfeld, 46 Haycroft Gardens, London NW10 3BN, UK. FAX: 44(0)181.838.2566.


[1] Himansu Rai, An epic of India, The Picturegoer, December 1926, p. 27.

[2] Indian Cinematograph Committee, Evidence, Vol. 1, 1926/7.

[3] Naval D Gaudhi, Der indische Markt, Lichtbildbuhne, 39(1925), p. 25.

[4] Suddeutsche Filmzeitung, 28(1925), p. 5.

[5] Bertl Schultes, Ein Komodiant blickt Zuruck (Munich, 1963), p. 149.

[6] The German subtitle of The Light of Asia.

[7] Berliner Lokalanzeiger, 9.11.1925. Gandhi and Tagore allegedly read the script.

[8] Lichtbildbuhne, 123 (1925), p. 17.

[9] Himansu Rai. op. cit.

[10] Indian Cinematograph Committee, op. cit., Vol. V., p. 24.

[11] Indian Cinematograph Committee, op. cit., Vol. I.

[12] Himansu Rai, The Light of Asia, Asia, 26, (September, 1926), p. 754.

[13] Munchener Neueste Nachrichten, 24 October, 1925.

[14] Somlyo, Die Liebe des Buddha, Lichtbilduhne, 129(1925) p. 19.

[15] Fritz Olimsky, Die Leuchte Asiens, Berliner Borsenblatt, 1925.

[16] Munchen-Augsburger Abendzeitung, 31 October 1925.

[17] Lichtbildbuhne, 221 (1925).

[18] Der Film, 9 May 1926.

[19] Die Filmwoche, 43(1928), p. 1090.

[20] The Illustrated Weekly of India, 24 February 1929.

[21] Film-Kurier 181, August 1929.

[22] Berliner Tageblatt, 15 August 1929.

[23] Cinema Vision, No. 1 (January 1980), p. 7.

[24] Interview, Gerhard Lamprecht with Emil Schunemann, 13 January 1956.

[25] Gerhard Koch, Von der Munchner Lichtspielkunst zu den Bombay Talkies: Franz Osten, in Das Gupta/Kobe Kino in Indien (Munich, 1986), p. 139.

[26] Ibid., p. 130.

[27] There are interesting differences between the German and Anglo-Indian versions of the film. The German version, the tinted print owned by the Murnau Stiftung in Wiesbaden, contains a scene of Buddha preaching to fakirs on beds of nails not found in the Anglo-Indian version. The latter begins with a fascinating introductory sequence of various Indian towns, including Delhi, where one sees a streetcar passing which displays a prominent advertisement for Dunlop tires. Incidentally, Rai received [pounds]800 for this “paid” advertisement, which he used to finance the showing of Light of Asia in Philharmonic Hall.

Appendix: Franz Osten: a filmography (D = Director)

1910. Die Wahrheit (actor) D: Peter Ostermayr 1911. D. Erna Valewska. 1916. D. Traume sind Schaume oder zu Hoherem geboren (writer) 1918. D. Ruhm und Frauengunst. 1919. D. Das vollendete Schicksal. 1919. D. Der Tod von Phaleria. 1919. D. Vetter Furst. 1919. D. Aus Liebe gesundigt. 1919. D. Am Weibe zerschellt. 1920. D. Der gelbe Gaukler. 1920. D. Der Ochsenkrieg. (also writer) 1920. D. Der Kopf des Gonzales. 1920. D. Die Nacht der Entscheidung. 1921. D. Der Brand im Variete Mascotte. 1921. D. Die Kette der Schuld. 1921. D. Bedaure, besetzt. 1921. D. Die letzte Nacht der Dora Fiametta. 1921. D. Der Verfluchte. 1921. D. Der Welt Liebe und Leid. 1921/22. D. Das schwarze Gesicht. 1922. D. Schattenkinder des Glucks. 1922. D. Um Liebe und Thron. 1923. D. Das rollende Schicksal. 1923. D. Die Tragodie einer Liebesnacht. 1924. D. Der Schrecken des Meeres. 1924. D. Aus der Jugendzeit klingt ein Lied. 1925. Germany-India. Die Leuchte Asiens/The Light of Asia/Prem Sanyas. 1925/26. D. Der siebente Junge. 1926. D. Die kleine Inge und ihre drei Vater. 1926. D. Die Villa im Tiergarten. 1927. D. Einbruch. 1927. D. Was Kinder den Eltern verschweigen. 1927. D. Die raffinierteste Frau Berlins. 1928. D. Die Dame in Schwarz. 1928. Germany-Britain-India. D. Das Grabmal einer grossen Liebe/Shiraz. 1928/29. Germany-Britain-India. D. Schicksalswurfell A Throw of Dice/Prapancha Pash. 1929. Der Sonderling (producer) D: Walter Jerven.

Sound Films

1931. D. Sankt Elisabeth in unseren Tagen. with H. Rutters (Documentary) 1931. D. Im Banne der Berge. 1932. D. Furst Seppl. 1933. D. Der sundige Hof. 1933. D. Der Judas von Tirol. 1933/34. D. Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz. 1934. D. Die Reise ins Gluck. Short feature; title when first censored: Das Autoliebchen. 1934. D. Rhapsodie. Short feature. 1934. D. Der zerstreute Walzer. Short feature. 1934. D. Ein Heiratsantrag. Short feature. 1935. India. Jawani Ki Hawa (Carelessness of Youth). 1935/36. India Mamta (Mother Love). 1935/36. India. Always Tell Your Wife. 1936. India. Jeevan Nays (Ship of Life). 1936. India. Achut Kanya (The Untouchables). 1936. India. Jamma Bhoomi (Heimatland – Homeland) 1936/37. India. Izzat (Honour) 1937. India. Prem Kahini (Love Story) 1937. India. Savitri. 1937. India. Jeevan Prabhat (Beginning of Life). 1938. India. Nirmala. 1938. India. Vacban (The Oath). 1938. India. Bhabi (Sister-in-Law). 1939. India. Nay Jeevan. (New Life). 1939. India. Durga. 1939. India. Kangan. (Bangle).

Carl-Erdmann Schonfeld is a filmmaker in London and a Fellow of the Nipkow-Programme, Berlin. He is completing a documentary film about Franz Osten.

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