One of the most unusual, and unusually moving swansongs in cinema history, Josef von Sternberg’s Anatahan (a.k.a. The Saga of Anatahan) returns to American screens this spring in a new restoration which seems destined not to only buff up the movie’s obvious visual splendor but also its standing as an essential and fully engaged work of a master Hollywood stylist rather than simply a curious end post to a remarkable career.
In the early ‘50s Sternberg was coming off two movies made for Howard Hughes—the gorgeously sublimated cold-war adventure Jet Pilot (finished in 1950 but cut extensively by Hughes and held up for release until 1957) and Macao (1952), on which Sternberg and Hughes clashed again, resulting in the director’s replacement by Nicholas Ray. Disillusioned by Hollywood, Sternberg, a long-time devotee of Japanese culture, capitalized on his separation from Hughes and began investigating the possibility, one he had been pursuing on and off for over 15 years, of producing a film in Japan with Japanese producer Kawakita Nagamasa. For the duration of World War II that collaboration remained an impossibility, and according to film scholar Sachiko Mizuno in her formidable and richly researched essay "The Saga of Anatahan and Japan" it was delayed further by Kawakita’s status after the war as a class-B war criminal, which meant a three-year ban from working in the Japanese film industry.
Sternberg became fascinated by a story he’d read in the New York Times about Japanese WWII survivors who had been discovered living on Anatahan, one of the remote islands comprising the Marianas archipelago in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. Since he and Kawakita had talked about a Japanese-U.S. co-production that might in some small way address the futility and stupidity of war, the story of what happened on Anatahan seemed like a natural proposition. As quoted in Mizuno’s essay, Sternberg addressed his motivations and desires for the movie:
“The reason why I decided to make a film adaptation of the Anatahan incident was not because the incident is pertinent to the Japanese nor because it happened to non-American people. How do human beings behave in the most unfortunate situation? This point is what I am most interested in. It doesn’t matter what kind of racial background these people have. This great story is almost as great as Robinson Crusoe… I am a humanist, and I love Japan. I will never make a film to displease the Japanese people.”
Pointedly, Sternberg felt little obligation to hew strictly to the historical facts of the incident, and that decision is at the root of the movie’s extraordinary empathy, and Sternberg’s innate sense of how style can emerge and serve a work that in other hands might have had a more obviously documentarian texture. Rather than staging the trials of the shipwrecked Japanese naval crew, and the couple they find already living on the island, with “you-are-there” immediacy, the director placed his cast of largely inexperienced Japanese actors on lush jungle sets which on their face might have no more topographic verisimilitude than the average episode of Gilligan’s Island. Yet it won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Sternberg’s more appreciated work with Marlene Dietrich that the thick atmosphere of foliage and terrain to which the sailors must adapt, and especially the marvelously observed detail of the house in the trees which serves as the castle of “queen bee” Keiko (Akemi Negishi) and her abusive but also strangely submissive husband Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma), would be so seductively exploited by Sternberg for every ounce of expressive, oppressive beauty. There are moments when Sternberg’s camera creeps through the jungle in hypnotic pursuit of Keiko in which it seems to be under the same spell as that of her mesmerized male subjects. Attuned as we are by the play of light and shadow amongst the leaves and the dense humidity of the atmosphere which is, of course, informed by the intense sexuality of Keiko’s hold over the men, that forbidding foliage takes on the same erotic qualities as the shadow-draped parlors of Dietrich’s mysterious seductress Concha in The Devil is a Woman (1935).
Sternberg also employs another device which might be seen as distancing but in fact serves exactly the opposite purpose. The entirety of the dialogue spoken by the Japanese cast was left deliberately untranslated—Sternberg was obviously confident that the humane universality of his intended point would transcend barriers of language. But the director further augments that point through first-person narration, read by Sternberg himself. To hear an English-speaking non-Japanese relating the nuances, circumstances and poetic implications of the harrowing experience of these survivors, their warring impulses of desire, political and sexual manipulation, and their waning hopes of survival, is to absorb Sternberg’s strategy of achieving a commonality of experience. This is to say nothing of the unexpectedly powerful emotional response to a situation which the movie evokes and from which American audiences at the time might have found themselves intellectually as well as emotionally withdrawn.
The primary marvel of Anatahan, as it turns out, is that empathy which Sternberg teases out of his subject. Ironically, that quality, as much as any of the formal stylistic devices he employed, might be at the core of the movie’s difficulty in reaching and being absorbed by audiences and by history. American audiences certainly might have been expected to resist a film made so soon after the official resolution of World War II that explicitly insisted upon the vulnerable humanity of Japanese soldiers, and by extension the Japanese citizenry, and critics at the time weren't exactly welcoming either. (Los Angeles Times critic Philip Scheuer dismissed the film upon its release as “a curiosity among motion pictures that may have some esoteric interest but that to this itinerant filmgoer is largely a bore.”)
But Sternberg’s master stroke is how that humanity is defined and sustained throughout the film, how it informs even the basest and most indefensible actions of the people who find themselves in the increasingly untenable position of finding a way to survive their experience, much less gaining even the slightest understanding of it. The film ends with a sequence in which the seven survivors emerge from an airplane back onto Japanese soil, and as they make their way toward the camera, smiling, the parade is interrupted by a shot of Keiko observing from a shadowed distance, accompanied by the voice of Sternberg as narrator: “We are home at last, and if I know anything about Keiko, she too must have been here.” Keiko then observes another parade, as each of the dead men approach the camera with grave expressions quite in contrast to the survivors previously seen, her haunted remembrance of those, including Kusakabe, who did not come back, while the distant echo of a samisen and an Okinawan folk song fade into memory on the soundtrack. Similarly, though the experience at the heart of the Anatahan incident may have faded into the mist of history, Sternberg has insured that the valuable lesson of humanity learned in its retelling has not. Like the strings of that samisen, Anatahan continues to reverberate.
(Anatahan is currently playing is Los Angeles through February 21 at the Cinefamily and in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center through February 22, and is scheduled for further engagements in Seattle, Austin, Cleveland and Toronto in March and May. Playdate details and more available at the Kino Lorber Web site.)