Drama / War

Rotten Tomatoes Critics - Certified Fresh 100%
Rotten Tomatoes Audience - Upright 76%
IMDb Rating 7.5 10 552


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Movie Reviews

Reviewed by OldAle1 10 / 10

The perfect end to a brilliant career

This had been a holy grail film for me for many years, mostly from reading Jonathan Rosenbaum's descriptions of it....sounded like a truly sui generis film, a soldiers-stranded-on-island and reverting to barbarism story told entirely with quite artificial-looking sets and unsubtitled dialogue, with the director narrating...a completely noncommercial film from a frustrated, bitter middle-aged director tired of fighting the studio bigwigs, determined to make a truly personal film whatever the cost.

I finally located a pretty decent VHS copy a few months ago and watched it last night, and I must say it equalled or even exceeded by expectations -- this really is a film experience like nothing else out there. The photography and sound, even on a somewhat soft and fuzzy VHS, are just stunning -- the sound design in particular is worthy of Lynch, and really the film as a whole is one of the weirdest American features to be released before Eraserhead. Sternberg's narration interacts in all kinds of ways with the action on screen, sometimes anticipating events, sometimes contradicting what we see, sometimes questioning...the hermetic world created on the sound-stage is obviously unreal, and yet the lush beauty of the photography and sets creates a unique otherworld as powerful as anything in the massive-budgeted 'scope spectacles that would be Hollywood's bread-and-butter for the next decade. It's as if Sternberg knew where American film was headed, and told us he could do something much more interesting at a fraction the price.

And if all of this makes the film sound like an arid exercise in technique and style -- fear not -- the ending, with the island's sole woman reflecting back on the several men who met their deaths as the result of their fighting over her, is powerfully emotional and resonant.

I'm not sure my comments are at all meaningful, this is a hard film to wrap my head around...suffice it to say I recommend it as strongly as possible to those that can find it.

Reviewed by MARIO GAUCI ([email protected]) 8 / 10

Sternberg's final film may be his greatest (possible spoiler!)

Sternberg's famous swan-song (at the time of writing his equally notable autobiography in 1965, he had hoped to direct again but died 4 years later!) was considered a rarity until a few years back: in fact, I first watched snippets from it as a kid in the 1990 documentary Hollywood MAVERICKS on local TV; then, it eventually turned up on late-night Italian TV. I later acquired a low-grade and problematic copy of it but subsequently upgraded to a serviceable one, albeit still plagued by the occasional audio drop-out and accompanied by forced French subtitles!

Disillusioned with Hollywood by this time, Sternberg tried his luck abroad and, while he described the circumstances of shooting this one as ideal (in that he was free to exercise his well-documented autocracy!) in his autobiography, it was far from easy since the film was directed through interpreters and sometimes had to resort to storyboards in order to get across what was required of cast and crew! Sternberg writes bemusedly about the complexity of the Japanese language, the hiring of a kabuki actor for one of the main roles and his being gradually seen by all and sundry as a father-figure (being even asked by her family to protect the virtue of the virginal{!} leading lady). In any case, it is interesting that, being set and shot in Japan, this came at a time when that country's cinema was enjoying world-wide recognition largely through the works of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi.

Incidentally, though the film features Japanese dialogue throughout, this is not translated into English – instead, we get the writer-director himself supplying intermittent commentary to expound on the action! Even so, this and the ghostly parade of victims at the finale constitute the only stylistic flourishes within the film. Indeed, the picture is unusually stark for Sternberg – treated almost like a documentary, with superimposed dates indicating the passage of time, and utilizing stock footage of returning Japanese WWII veterans. Opting as always to shoot entirely within the controlled environment of a studio, he took his traditional artificiality to new levels – with sets and props sometimes being no more than just drawings (including the titular Pacific island!) and deploying copious lighting equipment, given that most of the proceedings occur in the daytime!!

With this in mind, the premise is simple enough: at the tail-end of WWII, the crew of a sunken ship are stranded on an apparently uninhabited island in the Philippines; however, it transpires that a couple are living on it and, soon, the battle-weary and sex-starved soldiers begin to disobey the orders of their commanding officer (who insists they keep vigilance over potential attack by the enemy and in the hope of spotting a salvage vessel) and contend over the sole female presence, a vixen-ish girl who actively encourages their attentions despite the stern monitoring of her consort! In this respect, the film anticipates the likes of Seth Holt's STATION SIX SAHARA (1962), Edgar G. Ulmer's THE CAVERN (1964; the last effort by this cult figure, too) and John Derek's ONCE BEFORE I DIE (1965), all of which dealt with a similar situation of one-woman-to-several-men in already-sticky surroundings – for the record, I recently watched the first of these but, while I own the others as well, I still need to check them out. Still, inspired as it was by a true story, there were some initial protests that such a sensitive Japanese story was to be told by a foreigner (even if his work was well-known); in retrospect, its people are depicted in reasonably realistic fashion – so much so that it would later become a clichéd view! – as honorable citizens, prone to making merry but also driven by lust.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the film was badly received in Japan but, then, it ended up being overlooked everywhere else as well (dismissed as an eccentric foot-note to a great directorial career)…except in France, with the glowing "Cahiers Du Cinema" assessment being reprinted in full in Sternberg's memoirs! Personally, I feel that its dramatic and artistic power are undeniable and, after all this time, still very much undiminished. The last word, however, goes to the director who unreservedly called it "my best film" and one that he believed ahead of its time, especially in the way it attempted to make cinema patrons reflect beyond what was on the screen.

Reviewed by Edgar Soberon Torchia ([email protected]) 7 / 10

The Saga of Anatahan

The origin of "The Saga of Anatahan" was a trip Josef von Sternberg made to Japan in 1936, during which he met producer Nagamasa Kawakita, while Arnold Fanck was shooting "Atarashiki tsuchi" (1937), a movie Kawakita was financing to promote the image of Japan in Europe. Sternberg was a well-known admirer of Japanese culture, so he discussed with Kawakita the possibility of making a motion picture in the country, about one of their national themes, but they had to wait until the end of American occupation in the island. Kawakita had been scorned for his liking of everything related to China, considered a war criminal, and expelled from the Japanese film industry for five years. However, his long career as producer of films that faithfully portrayed the Japanese culture, and his distribution of Japanese cinema abroad since the 1920s, allowed Kawakita to produce this free retelling of an incident that by 1951 was hot in the Japanese media. According to Michiro Maruyama's memoirs –which served as starting point for the screenplay-, during World War II he and 29 fellow sailors shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean and stayed for almost a decade in the island of Anatahan, populated only by a peasant and a woman. With the collaboration of Tatsuo Asano, Sternberg made his version of the story, and concentrated on the power struggle, the triumph of hedonism and the search for sexual favors from the woman (newcomer Akemi Negishi). However, I find the result a bit confusing and whimsical. Besides directing, co-producing, co-writing, co-editing, and co-photographing the film, Sternberg opted to narrate it (himself) in English, while the voices of the Japanese players were registered as they performed. The effect of the first-person narration disorients more than distances from the action: it seems the reflection of one of the main characters, but the narration is never associated with anybody. Moreover, Sternberg's commentaries contain ethical and moral views and perceptions that seem more pertinent to Occident than to Japanese culture. In 1953 the film opened and was rejected in Japan, for it dealt with recent war events that had traumatic effects on the population, who had a different moral view. The film was a failure in the United States, Kawakita released it in Europe with a new narration told by a young Japanese actor, and Sternberg went to teach cinema. However he kept working on it, asked cinematographer Kôzô Okazaki to film additional shots (including a nude Akemi Negishi, sitting by the sea), and in 1958 made the version I am reviewing, which he gave the title of "The Saga of Anatahan", and stated that this was the definitive version. Since then, the film has been reconsidered as among his best works. It does not lack interest but is far from his silent masterpieces, "The Blue Angel" and other titles with Marlene Dietrich.

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