Josef von Sternberg was one of the first independent filmmakers. Even when he did eventually make studio films, he still put his unique stamp on the final product. However, he had burned many bridges by the time of his last film, The Saga of Anatahan, which he co-financed himself with Japanese backers. His is best known for his films with Marlene Dietrich in the ’30s, and with his Richard Neurtra-designed modernist house, known as “Von Sternberg House,” which the disgusting writer Ayn Rand later bought and lived in. After The Saga of Anatahan he taught “film aesthetics” at UCLA, where his students included two young film students called Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek. The latter said that the director was “perhaps the greatest single influence on The Doors.”
The Saga of Anatahan is a strange film because it’s in Japanese but not subtitled: instead, von Sternberg narrates the entire film. It’s about a group of Japanese seaman who are stranded on the island of Anatahan for seven years. They try to be disciplined and rational, but soon it becomes chaos and the group of sailors are struggling for power and for the woman, Keiko, who also inhabits the island.
Sternberg always struggled with Hollywood, but when he made this film he pretty much had complete creative control over the design, the photography, the sound, the script and so forth. It was a deeply personal film for von Sternberg, who was extremely anti-war and had fallen in love with Japan when he visited before the second world war. The entire film was shot in an aircraft hanger, so it has a deliberately artificial look at times, but the atmosphere and photography doesn’t make this distracting, the film’s final moments have some poor rear projection work, but I kind of like that too.
It’s basically a silent film, and given that von Sternberg got his start in the silent days, it’s hardly surprising that he can pull off that rare feat of making a modern silent film. It’s the work of a true auteur unrestrained by the big bad studios, and it’s a powerful indictment of war, power structures and the monstrous actions men can commit.
The film was released in two versions, one in 1953 and the other in 1958—the disc includes both cuts. The special features include an interview with Asian film expert Tony Rayns, a visual essay by Tag Gallagher, an interview with von Sternberg’s son Nicolas, footage of the actual survivors of Anatahan, and even unused footage shot for the 1958 version. The release is rounded off with the trailer and a booklet with new writing on the film.