Long celebrated but too often difficult to see, Anatahan, Josef von Sternberg’s final film, reemerges in a new 2K restoration from Kino Lorber — and what a strange and still-radical swan song it remains.
Sternberg dramatizes a real-life incident that found a band of Japanese soldiers stuck on the eponymous island for seven years at the tail end of World War II and beyond, re-creating the setting in a Japanese studio without bothering to cloak its artificiality. Further adding to the alienation is Sternberg’s decision to leave the wholly Japanese dialogue — delivered by Kabuki-trained native Japanese actors — untranslated. But the director’s own English-language voiceover narration gives the film a documentary-like flavor that clashes with the stylization. The result is a film full of fascinating contradictions.
Anatahan plays as a near-anthropological study of humanity pushed to the brink, with the soldiers slowly succumbing to power plays, petty jealousies, and sexual rivalries the longer they’re trapped on this island. But Sternberg’s eye for sensuality, familiar from his many collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, is undiminished, especially in his ripely erotic treatment of Keiko (Akemi Negishi), the lone female character.
Somehow, through all this abstraction, the feeling of bearing sobering witness to the breakdown of civilization comes through vividly. Though some of these people are rescued in the end, the final sequence suggests that their newfound understanding of the depths of human cruelty within themselves will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Opens February 3, Metrograph