This review is part of our Auteurs Gone Wild Series. It played at Anthology Film Archives on 3/24 and will play again on 3/29.
The first shots of Josef von Sternberg’s The Saga of Anatahan establish the extreme geography of the film. The opening credits are seen from the distinctly human perspective of the top of a fish tank. The occupying fish swim around and over the words, even casting small shadows over the lettering. Notice the line behind the text, where the floor of the tank meets the wall. This establishes a space so small that it seems only a tiny piece of text can be slipped between it. The line is exploded by the title JUNE 12, 1944 which itself is replaced by the image of another line, another boundary, a new space. This space is vast compared to the fish tank, but no less cluttered. This is a space between extremes, where most of us live. It’s a powerful visual idea and one Sternberg repeats. The Salvation Hunters, Underworld, and so on.
This space is important because Sternberg’s many characters are defined by and largely exist on its peripheries. The Salvation Hunters, Sternberg’s first film, is dedicated to the derelicts of the world, and its characters don’t even have names (an admittedly common occurrence in silent films of the era). This is Sternberg’s most extreme example and seasoned auteurists both vulgar and tasteful will know the other examples well. Blonde Venus finds Marlene Dietrich playing a runaway mother, keeping her son from a well-intentioned but destructively self-righteous Herbert Marshall. His goal being to place the son back into some sort of domestic safe zone, a place his mother, now a prostitute, can never hope to return. The Scarlet Empress offers an interesting variation on this premise, wherein the cunning Catherine The Great (Dietrich again) seizes power from the eerily child-like, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe). Although the film concerns the most important people in all of Russia, it feels as if it’s all playing out in an secluded cave somewhere, where occasional screams from the heart of the earth rattle upward and spread out into nothingness. It’s a hopeless film and its orgiastic final images offer a terrifying outward explosion of plant and animal matter in such a way as to suggest the prize won between these two animals was the right to eat up all of humanity and puke it right back out. To rearrange the earth, just because they could.
Thankfully, Sternberg is a complex-enough storyteller to allow for many different variations of these relationships. In Underworld, for example, gangster kingpin Bull Weed (George Bancroft) rescues his former lawyer, “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook) from the gutter, who then falls in love with Bull’s girlfriend, Feathers McCoy (Evelyn Brent). The end result is Bull sacrifices himself for sake of the secret lovers. In The Blue Angel, Emil Jannings is Prof. Immanuel Rath, a well-respected school teacher whose idea of social and domestic propriety contradict what his testicles want so badly, that he destroys himself in the pursuit. This is all to say that there’s a strange kind of social mobility in Sternberg’s world, too. One that seems to rearrange the distribution of power for some, but reveal how meaningless the struggle is for others. The beginning of The Blue Angel finds Emil Jannings in the same place as in the end, at his desk. The mud dwellers in The Salvation Hunters are writhing in the same filthy river as Catherine The Great and every other denizen of this place.
One of the many reasons The Saga of Anatahan is unique is because of how these characters inhabit this space. It seems like the island is placed similarly to the feather in Underworld or the floating piece of cargo with the seagull standing on it from The Salvation Hunters, perhaps placing it between the aforementioned extremes.
That is to say unlike the people in The Salvation Hunters, or even Shanghai Express, whose lives are complicated by political and economic forces just outside of their control, the islanders who settle on Anatahan do so with something of a clean slate:
Unfortunately, though, the trauma of being human, especially during wartime, is too great for these inhabitants. There’s only one woman and one man on Anatahan when these twelve seamen show up: a farmer and his wife. Even when stripped down to the barest elements, this single domestic arrangement is a significant enough source of friction that life for these poor people soon consists of nothing but jockeying for power, objects and status. As is often the case both in life and on film, this results in dead people.
It’s Sternberg’s final work and as such places itself quite comfortably on a list of other, formally adventurous final works by veteran filmmakers. Sternberg himself is the narrator for the film, a technique which provides us with intermittent and poetic interpretations of the events we’re witnessing as well as providing the inhabitants of Anatahan with a voice. The effect of using this single voice for all the different characters in the film at once offers us the strange comfort of unity that often accompanies the pain of being human, but also has a way of eroding the individuality of the concerned parties. The resulting tension dominates the film as well as every single day of life here on earth.