Saturday, May 24, 2008

Opulent and Radiant: The Saga of Anatahan

(Josef von Sternberg, 1953, Japan, 92 mins.)

Though language is not always the best way to communicate an idea, its use should not be ignored entirely.
-- Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969)

***** *****

It's just like Viennese director Josef von Sternberg (Morocco, Shanghai Express) to go out in style. Populated by an all-Japanese cast, his final film plays like a cross between Woman in the Dunes, Underground, Letters From Iwo Jima, and ABC's Lost. (Though Sternberg narrates in English, the dialogue is not translated; an initially off-putting, but effective choice.)

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Michiro Maruyana, the story begins in 1944 when 12 sailors, ranging from captain to cook, are shipwrecked on the volcanic island of Anatahan. They are not alone. The tiny speck of land is inhabited by a grumpy gentleman (Tadashi Suganuma) and his common-law wife (Akemi Negishi, Akira Kurosawa's I Live in Fear and The Lower Depths), who were stranded years before. The new arrivals are inexor-
ably drawn to Anatahan's Queen Bee. And she to them. Well, some of them, at any rate.

Years pass, and the war ends, but the "Drones" remain forgotten, so they continue to drink coconut wine and to compete for Keiko's favors, but she stays faithful to her longtime companion because, as Sternberg tells us, that's what good Japanese women do. Keiko may like to flirt, but that doesn't make her a bad gal.

Simmering tensions finally come to a boil when a plane crashes on the island. The passengers seem to have landed elsewhere, but the vessel parts contain pistols, ammunition, cords for a shamisen (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument), and a printed parachute, which someone--presumably Keiko--stitches into spiffy new outfits.

The fun doesn't last long. The armed men
try to make Keiko their own, but the island
has other plans, and the bodies start to
drop. Though filmed in Kyoto, this expres-
sive picture transpires primarily on studio sets, and the moss and shell-covered lo-
cations are obviously fake, but Sternberg uses the limitation in his favor, living up to Andrew Sarris's claim, in classic auteurist text The American Cinema, that the Pan-
theon Director was "a lyricist of light and shadow." Or as Ephraim Katz puts it in The Film Encyclopedia, he "used the camera as a painter's brush or a poet's pen."

Sarris adds that the filmmaker's sharp-
dressed protagonists tend to "retain their
civilized graces despite the most desperate
struggles for psychic survival, and it is their
poise under pressure, their style under
stress, that grants them a measure of he-
roic status and stoic calm." And Sternberg's sympathies for a proud and sensuous woman make Keiko a worthy successor to the regal angels and empresses Marlene Dietrich once embodied for her favorite director.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

One of his greatest talents lay in making everything appear opulent
and radiant when in fact he worked on a very thin shoestring.

--Dietrich on Sternberg

The Saga of Anatahan plays the Harvard Exit on Sun., 6/1, at 1:30pm. Click here for a more in-depth analysis of Sternberg's narration. As Phil Hall notes, "In a strange way, the constant and often mysterious narration gives The Saga of Anatahan a uniquely odd if we are eavesdropping into a bizarre parallel universe." Images from Accelerated Decreptitude and Cinematheque Ontario.

1 comment:

  1. Great and intriguing review. I am now dying to see this when it plays at the PFA on February 22nd. Thanks for linking this to my article on the von Sternberg retrospective.