Only the Lonely: Josef von Sternberg’s Anatahan
Cinema has the power to express the brunt of loneliness. This idea wasn’t lost on Robert Kolker who wrote a book called A Cinema of Loneliness (1980) that examined a group of New Hollywood directors. Characters from all sorts of films feel different strains and gradations of it. There are those, like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965) and Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), slowly cracking up in their domestic holes. Sometimes, such as Lee Kang-sheng and Yang Kuei-Mei in Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole (2001), tenants reach out and touch someone from their cramped apartments. There are “God’s lonely men” (Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver , Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant (1992), Philippe Nahon in I Stand Alone ) wandering cities and creating havoc. Cinema doesn’t really need people to convey the melancholy of loneliness either. James Benning’s work, like Deseret (1995) and UTOPIA (1998), captures lonesome lands haunted by the history and violence of phantom figures that once inhabited them.
A type of movie even makes this feeling a priority—the island film. People don’t just appear on an island, they become stranded on one. Silence pervades these films, Hell in the Pacific (1968) as the key example, with its bare minimum of dialogue. Island films focus on survival, on acquiring the essentials to live. Pushing back encroaching silence, staving off madness or sensing its onset, island dwellers make inanimate objects buddies to talk to—a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016) and a volleyball in Cast Away (2000). Sound becomes the aesthetic foundation for island films.
Josef von Sternberg’s last film, Anatahan (1953), is a work that stands out amongst the genre. In most island films, people are desperate to leave. In Anatahan, the men and woman want to stay. Where the makers of island films highlight survival, Sternberg focuses on death, for Anatahan is about the human’s regression to base tendencies. Highlighting the instinctual nature of the characters, Sternberg lists the female lead (Akemi Negishi) as “Queen Bee,” and her five suitors as “Drones” in the opening credits. Strip them from culture, from society, and they are naked flesh, succumbing to the same weaknesses, the same impulses and drives toward self-destruction. Rarely seen since its release, and now thankfully restored by Kino Lorber and receiving a weeklong run at Metrograph, Anatahan is a film that’s a mix of chilly reflection and fateful eroticism.
Sternberg’s film is based on an actual incident. During the Second World War, bombers sank three cargos ships. A group from the sunken vessels swam ashore on Anatahan, a Pacific island in the. There, the men found a man and a woman living on the island. The ragtag group ignored pamphlets dropped from the United States that the war was over. They thought it was a ploy from the enemy to capture them. So they stayed on the island until the Japanese army sent letters from loved ones begging them to return to their families. They left in 1951, staying seven years after the war’s end. During that time, six men died, purportedly for the love of the only woman on the island.
Why was Sternberg so attracted to such a news item, which was a brief media sensation at the time? Fielding questions from scholars and journalists in Japan, Sternberg gave this response:
The reason why I decided to make a film adaptation of the Anatahan incident was not because the incident is pertinent to Japanese nor because it happened to non-American people. How do human beings behave in the most unfortunate situation? This point is what I am most interested in.
Sternberg adapted the film from Michiro Maruyama’s book, a personal account of living on the island. (Rokuriro Kineya plays him in the film, the man who with the samisen.) In Sternberg’s film, he reduced the party to a dozen. Frustrated with a Hollywood that either shunned him or mangled his recent projects (Macao [1950; 1957] and Jet Pilot [1952; 1958]), Sternberg chose to shoot Anatahan independently with an all-Japanese crew in Japan. Perhaps with the exception of his first film, the low-budget silent, The Salvation Hunters (1925), Sternberg finally had complete control of his film. “Von Sternberg was about as close to a ‘total auteur’ as one can get,” Tag Gallagher remarks in his Senses of Cinema piece. Anatahan is Sternberg through and through—even with the Hokusai-esque shots of waves crashing against the coast and the powerful insertion of archival footage. He constructed an island out of a government-owned pavilion, spraying trunks and leaves with aluminum paint, or wrapping them in cellophane. He directed actors, who spoke in their native tongue, with translators, storyboards, and diagrams charting the flow of emotions over the course of the film. Like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Robert Bresson, Sternberg not only creates his island, but also his own world.
More so than his silents, or his seven films with Marlene Dietrich, Sternberg makes bold, unorthodox formal choices that single Anatahan out from practically all of Classical Hollywood, despite this being an independent film. While his actors speak Japanese, Sternberg, in his faint Brooklyn accent, and in an uninflected tone, narrates the events unfolding on screen. And yet, he speaks as if he’s part of the group stranded on the island, alternating between first-person singular and first-person plural, creating distance and destabilizing how we see the film.
At the tail end of the 1950s, Sternberg was an island. Hollywood ignored him. Even more, the public ignored him. Too sui generis, too strange, and perhaps fed up with hearing about the Anatahan story, audiences didn’t watch Sternberg’s final film, either in Japan or in the United States. Inserting a few new shots (a bit of almost subliminal nudity here and there) and changing the title several times, he presented the film again and again, but no one cared. However, the public’s collective shrug didn’t bother Sternberg. In his biography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965), he said Anatahan was his best film and his must unsuccessful. Anatahan is that rare artwork where intention mirrors execution. Under ideal circumstances, Sternberg made the film that he wanted to make. He satisfied himself, not the spectators. To paraphrase a line from Heat (1995), Sternberg isn’t lonely. He’s alone.