“And so we entered the twisting haunted labyrinth of an unfamiliar jungle, a beautiful but vicious world from which many of us never returned.” So speaks the narrator of The Saga of Anatahan (its onscreen title), the previously obscure final film of one of cinema’s masters of fevered style, Josef von Sternberg. He not only wrote the story and its pervasive philosophical narration, but speaks it himself. This “failure” is now restored to startling clarity by the Library of Congress and Frances’s Lobster Films, so that we too may get lost in the jungle of human desire.
Sternberg was inspired by the true story of a score of Japanese soldiers who occupied the island of Anatahan for several years after WWII was over, unaware of or unwilling to believe in Japan’s surrender. He traveled to Japan to co-finance the film with Daiwa Productions through Toho. Sternberg used an entirely Japanese cast and crew, such as effects master Eiji Tsuburaya and composer Akira Ifukube, many of whom are associated with other Toho productions like Godzilla (1954). The actors all speak in Japanese, with only Sternberg’s narration to aid the Anglophone viewer, and that narration is often devoted less to explaining the obvious actions than to obscuring them with remarks like “We are driven by forces of which we understand nothing.”
The film stars Akemi Negishi, who became a major actress in Japan and starred in four Akira Kurosawa films. In this, her debut after Sternberg discovered her in a dance troupe, she plays another of his iconic hypnotic women, as played so often by Marlene Deitrich, whose sheer physicality and opaque emotional mask can drive men to frenzy; the women can be equally driven to obsessive and irrational behavior, as when Dietrich kicks off her shoes and plods into the desert in thrall to her own ideal Adonis at the end of Morocco (1930).
By placing this woman, “the only woman on Earth” says the narrator, in the role of “Queen Bee” with the men as her “drones” (all listed as such in the opening credits as well as the narration), Sternberg considerably refashions the real-life story recounted in Michiro Maruyama’s memoir. In reality, the original woman wasn’t that important and indeed, was among about 40 local islanders rather being one of the island’s only two inhabitants.
She is the Eve to a possessive pseudo-Adam (Tadashi Suganuma), assumed as her husband until we learn otherwise from the godlike narrator, who reveals as much as he conceals. Speaking in the plural like a chorus, sometimes this mysterious voice admits that what we see is speculation, since “we weren’t present and can never know”.
Although a lot happens in the seven years on the island and 90 minutes of running time, the passage of time seems frozen, or rather stagnant and humid, for both soldiers and viewers. As the camera pans slowly across trees or the men’s faces, or as it peers closely at its elegantly cluttered tableaus, we see the most superficial aspect of Sternberg’s style. As he plays with light and shadow, he continually puts stuff — hanging leaves, fabrics, bric-a-brac — between us and his characters, making us work to see what we desire to see; intrigued by the half-hidden, including human motives, even from the person enacting them.
Despite these constraining objects, we glimpse plenty of skin. The men are mostly shirtless while the Queen has several shots of nudity while bathing or swimming, and in one case being attacked by her jealous guardian. Most of these nude shots were inserted by von Sternberg in a 1958 recutting of the film, arguably to make it more commercial but also to fully realize the opaque light-struck surfaces of desire he’s talking about. The original 1953 edition, provided as a bonus from a French print, already contains a nude shot when the woman leaves the island. A handy extra compares all the different scenes from both versions.
As critic Tag Gallagher opines in a bonus essay, the movie is simultanously a men’s story, narrated by a single or collective man, and also a woman’s story. Both sexes are viewed objectively. They continually eye each other, but the direction offers no subjective shots to mimic either point of view. Even though the film is narrated, Gallagher observes that the film’s image sometimes contradicts what the narrator says. When we receive a privileged glimpse into the Queen’s subjectivity at the end of the film, as she stands at the airport in what looks like a geisha kimono, this could really be her own thoughts or it might be the narrator’s imagining of her thoughts —
or it could be the objective film continuing to hold the reins despite that narration.
We may be driven by forces we don’t understand, but Sternberg knows what he’s about. He exercises total control, down to the fact that the “jungle” is constructed artificially in a Kyoto hangar. This artificiality is one of the marks of a filmmaker who’d made Shanghai Express (1932) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941) without getting anywhere Shanghai, and Morocco far from Morocco. A disbeliever in petty reality, he mitigates against any sense of “realism” in favor of dream, where you find the real realities. By the way, where is The Shanghai Gesture nowadays?
For those who crave realism, there’s bonus newsreel footage of the Anatahan soldiers surrendering to a U.S. Navy ship. In an extra interview, Sternberg’s son Nicholas says his father met with some of them, and an article by Sternberg scholar Herman G. Weinberg in Saint Cinema quotes the filmmaker saying he had no real interest in meeting the real island woman. “What is known publicly about the subject is not in my mind. In fact, I would have been pleased if the subject was not known the world,” as Weinberg quotes Sternberg. “Shooting at the actual locale does not necessarily result in an artistic production. The artist’s primary attitude is to understand the essence of the reality he seeks.”
Here, he was interested in paring the world down to Woman abstracted and the male animal as a barely distinguishable hive. Even so, she comes across as the most powerful individual personality in the film by virtue of her youth, her beauty, and her essential anger at the situation in which she finds herself treated as a prize to be bargained for. She’s the one who makes everything happen, and she makes the final decision by leaving the island, popping the men’s bubble and forcing their fate. In that moment, she looks like Venus returning to the sea. For her, the world of male delusion was untenable and she did something about it while they were prepared to carry on indefinitely.
The film implies that life on the isolated island is really no different from life in the warring outside world, since both are run by masculine impulses and competition. The soldiers bring the enemy with them, as the narrator says, but they find their match in “the only woman on earth”. By constructing a completely artificial world, by diverging at will from the true story, and by working with people whose language he didn’t speak, Sternberg fabricated something entirely personal, yet another ode to a hardbitten woman who “can’t help it” (to quote a song sung by Dietrich) and only does what she must.
I said Sternberg made the film with people who didn’t speak his language; it’s not quite true, for they were all speaking the only language that mattered: that of cinema. According to World Film Directors: Volume One 1890-1945, Sternberg described this film as “made under almost ideal conditions” and “my best film — and my most unsuccessful one.” Contributor Philip Kemp calls it “an almost clinically pure demonstration of his perennial thesis: the destructive power of sexuality and uncontrolled emotion” and observes that brief insertions of newsreel footage are the parts that seem unreal. That’s underscored by this vivid, razor-sharp restoration, which can do nothing about those fuzzy newsreels.
In his book Have You Seen…?, David Thomson reaches into his memory to recall it as “an intense film, very beautiful, of gazing faces and spied-upon scenes,” and adds: “A day may yet come when Anatahan is rediscovered — though I would be quite happy to continue to think of it as a mythic film, an ideal to which everyone might aspire.”
Thomson won’t get his wish, because here it’s rescued at long last from the realm of legend. This film is so Sternbergian that it will excite film buffs with its availability and remind us of torrid jungle dreams like Luis Buñuel’s Death in the Garden (1956), which emerged a few years after. Clinically pure it may be, but probably this voluptuous hothouse study isn’t the movie to introduce the novice to Sternberg’s decadent, passionate world. That would be one of the Dietrich films or his silent masterpiece The Docks of New York (1929). This vintage is a bit drier, though still rich and smoky.