Review: Anatahan, 1953, dir. Josef von Sternberg

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There are two primary reasons to see Josef von Sternberg’s <i>Anatahan</i>. The first is that it’s a rarity, the final film in Sternberg’s solo directing career before co-directing <i>Jet Pilot</i> in 1957 with Fred Fleck. <i>Anatahan</i> is a picture obscured by the passage of time and by its own financial failure, a box office stumble that he spent years recutting after its limited release in the United States in 1954. The second is that it’s an oddity, the kind of story that’s so utterly strange that if you didn’t know it was based on truth, you’d swear it was the fanciest of fictions.

Just as the film is a relic of cinema history, so too is its narrative an anomaly of world history, a chronicle of how Japanese seamen stranded on the shores of a nigh-deserted island in 1944, the Anatahan of the title, wound up in a power struggle for the affections of the lone woman living among them, Keiko (Akemi Negishi). In the real world, her name was Kazuko Higa, she escaped the island a year before the men were rescued in 1951, and she died in poverty after working as a garbage collector and as a prostitute. Anatahan doesn’t follow that throughline, however, and instead poses her as a cunning temptress rather than as a victim. Through Sternberg’s lens, she is characterized with eroticism and manipulation: She is the object of her male companions’ desire, but in the end they’re just her playthings.

If this strikes you as problematic, consider the source. <i>Anatahan</i>’s view of Keiko/Kazuko feels like a natural extension of the movies Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich, his muse in profoundly erotic works like <i>The Blue Angel</i> and <i>The Scarlet Empress</i>, films that treat sexual exploration as a rapid descent into immorality. <i>Anatahan</i> isn’t any different from either of these films, both in its sense for sexual politics and in the considerable liberties it takes with history, but the degree to which Sternberg indulges his artistic license is necessary for his thesis: That people, left on their own outside the bounds of civilization, become the greatest threat to their own survival. “The enemy was not in planes overhead,” Sternberg declares in voiceover. “Nor was it the lack of food, the lack of water and medicine, nor the venomous plants that hemmed us in.”

Sternberg spends the entire film providing intermittent dictation as his cast of Japanese actors talk among themselves, with no translation offered for their words, a decision that fosters our perception of the characters’ isolation without directly isolating us: Sternberg’s monologue and his troupe’s interactions are enough to key us into what’s happening from one scene to the next, emphasizing the slow, spiraling decay of decorum that takes place when man is removed from society’s embrace. It doesn’t take much, apparently, to “change from a human being with dignity to a helpless worm,” just a run of bad luck and the loss of one’s identity. One of the characters, a warrant officer, tries to maintain order for as long as possible, but even he isn’t insulated against the deletion of his selfhood. Status, like dignity, can be robbed from us in but a moment.

The officer loses control after being bested in a fight by one of his subordinates, the last hurdle to be cleared in the race against propriety. From there, a body count begins to rise as each of the men vie for Keiko’s hand. <i>Anatahan</i> doesn’t depict most of its violence, preferring to tell us about it via Sternberg’s narration, but the film is staged with Expressionist artifice that casts a grisly shadow over the otherwise antiseptic mise en scène. The seams are obvious. You’ll know, for the entire time that Sternberg works his magic on you, that you’re watching a reenactment shot inside of a studio, but his stagecraft is so strong that the obviousness feels intentional, as though he means to treat <i>Anatahan</i> as a theatricalized documentary rather than as a straightforward historical drama. It’s all stunningly well-made in spite of its undisguised fakery.

It’s strangely relevant in 2017, too. As the men live out their days on Anatahan, they remain on the lookout for enemy planes, anticipating attack at any moment, vigilant for opportunities to defend their island until the imperial navy arrives to take them home. Nothing of the sort ever happens, of course, and as days turn to weeks, months, and years, and even in the face of evidence that the war has ended and Japan has surrendered piles up, they stay resolute, firmly convinced that each shred of proof of their nation’s defeat is a ruse to let their guard down. They come to inhabit a very particular social bubble, much as Americans see other Americans as the occupants of their own social bubbles, whether in the middle of the country or on its coasts, the north or the south, red states or blue states. We’re a people obsessed by our divisions, incapable of seeing around the barriers we erect to obscure our sight of one another.
Sternberg no doubt had none of this in mind when making <i>Anatahan</i>, seeking only to examine the tenuous bonds that keep humanity from decline, and perhaps that’s the third reason to see it: This is a film that will maintain its importance no matter the time, no matter the culture, so long as we find ways to step around the rules of proper conduct.

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