Special 30th : Exquisite Corpse

The Saga of Anatahan

1953
Japan
1h32
Fiction
B&W
English with french subtitles

A film chosen by Joao Pedro Rodrigues

Who is this man spying from behind the plants in the shadows? What side is he looking at? What does he see? Is he Asian? Is he African? Where are we? Is it daytime or night-time? Is he hiding? Is he frightened?

Here are some of the questions that came to my mind the first time I saw the image taken from the film that had been selected by Abderrahmane Sissako. The last frame of a film. Which film? Could the last frame of a film tell the entire story of the film?

In the last image of Josef von Sternberg’s The Saga of Anatahan (1953), we can see a close-up of a woman, on which a mountain, and an island, are superimposed, because this mountain-woman is an island:
We now sighted Anatahan, a jungle rock that stood high out of the sleeping waters’, says Sternberg, the narrator of his own last film, and the only voice that we are able to understand, unless of course we speak Japanese.

Could the last frame of the last Sternberg film tell not only the story of the entire film, but also that of his entire oeuvre? Keiko, the woman, is the final female image within Sternberg’s body of work, the ultimate embodiment of Marlene Dietrich and of the myth which is pursued through her.

That’s how we met Keiko. At first, she was only another fellow human being stranded on this pinpoint on the map. Then she was to become a female to us.
And finally… a woman, the only woman on Earth.

In this film, thirteen Japanese men, shipwrecked from a war that seemed bound to be lost, are looking at a woman, desiring her, fighting over her, dying for her. Only seven of them will return to defeated Japan, ‘heroes to all but to ourselves.’ Out of the six others, five are taken away by death, victims of Anatahan’s human passions, while the sixth one refuses to face the dishonour of defeat and remains on the island forever. In the end, the dead united to the living and Keiko, a living dead, come to witness the return of them all, their last departure from the stage of Anatahan, and from Sternberg’s work.

Keiko is the queen bee with her fake bumblebees. On this island/in this beehive, everyone sees and we, spectators, see together with them. We hide in this island that was built in a studio in Kyôto (the former capital of Japan, as one of the film’s first titles reminds us), made up of light and shadows (the photograph is by Sternberg himself), trees, foliage, veils, curtains... trapped there together with the protagonists. But we shall know more than them, guided as we are by Sternberg’s voice: we are told that the war is over, and how Keiko disappeared—the filmmaker informs us through an image of Keiko calling for help a boat of the enemies:

We did not see this, we never saw her again, she disappeared as if she’d never existed. Long ago I heard her say that if she had wings she would fly home. Keiko had gone, there was no more trouble. There was also no more… life.

And a popular song from Okinawa continues to echo in our ears:

You and me like an egg. I’m egg white, you’re egg yellow. I embrace you.

JOAO PEDRO RODRIGUES (Translated by Naomi Vogt and quotes by Bernard Eisenschitz)
Cast
Akemi Negishi, Tadashi Suganuma, Kisaburo Sawamura, Shoji Nakayama, Jun Fujikawa
Screenplay
Joseph von Sternberg, d'après le livre "Anatahan" de Michiro Maruyama
Photography
Joseph von Sternberg
Sound
Hisashi Kase
Music
Akira Ifukube
Art direction
Takashi Kono
Editing
Mitsuzo Miyata
Production
Daïwa Productions

Films in the Retrospective