Inspired by the true story of Japanese sailors stranded on a deserted island during World War II, Anatahan (1953) was the final film completed by Josef von Sternberg. In a career where he was increasingly forced to compromise his style and sensibility, it marked his final hurrah: a film over which he had complete control.
After a prologue on a Japanese ship bombed by an American plane, the film takes place almost entirely on Anatahan, a former plantation island in the South Pacific that is now completely overrun by the tropical jungle. The twelve survivors, a mix of sailors and soldiers, find the old plantation and a couple who stayed behind when the rest of the island population either enlisted or was evacuated. “We were to be here for seven long years,” reports the narrator (Sternberg himself), speaking in a tone of recollection and reflection long after the fact. (There is no effort to assign the narration to an individual character; it could very well stand in as the guilty conscience of the survivors.) As they await their rescue, their discipline breaks down and their desire for Keiko (Akemi Negishi), the lone woman in the society of men, stirs them to aggression and murder, which becomes easier when they find and scavenge the remains of a downed fighter plane, including a pair of handguns. “There was no law on our island, no police,” observes the narrator. “Only two pistols.”
Josef von Sternberg’s reputation as one of the great auteurs of classic cinema is generally focused on (but certainly not limited to) the seven magnificent melodramas he made with star Marlene Dietrich, from The Blue Angel (1930) to The Devil is a Woman (1935). This handsome three-disc collection is a reminder that Sternberg was also one of the great directors of the late silent era, a period almost unequalled in Hollywood for its consistently high level of craft and technique. Sternberg, who worked in almost every aspect of the filmmaking process before making his directorial debut in 1925 with The Salvation Hunters, was by 1927 a master of the medium and the three films in the set–Underworld (1927), The Last Command and The Docks of New York (both 1928)–show that he was as strong a storyteller as he was a creator of magnificent images in motion.
3 Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion)
Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”). That’s the cliché, anyway, based largely on his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, a tremendous body of work that charts the evolution of the director into increasing narrative abstraction and emotional dislocation.
But step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema. The three films in Criterion’s magnificent box set Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg may be all the evidence we have to this era (most of his silent films are lost and his directorial debut, the 1925 The Salvation Hunters, is unavailable on home video, though clips are included in the set supplements) but they are more than enough to show his mastery of the medium and the rapid evolution of his style, both a visual sculptor and as a cinematic storyteller. The “von” of his name (an affectation that didn’t originate with him but one he embraced who-heartedly) suggests an a European émigré and technically that’s accurate—he was born in Vienna and came the United State an early age—but Sternberg is an American, with European tastes perhaps but an American storytelling sensibility.
These films also showcase his often overlooked genius as a director of actors. While Sternberg fills the frame with light and shadow and layers of texture, he strips the performances down to the elemental base, their entire approach to life in their faces, their walk, the way they lean in for a comment or drop their eyes when they catch another’s gaze. In such carefully orchestrated performances, the smallest gestures, a lift of an eyebrow, a shift in body language communicates everything.