Josef von Sternberg once said that his films should be projected upside down, to allow the audience to better appreciate the pure play of light and shadow. He was joking, of course—his films do have a profound abstract beauty, but they also have much more than that—but in his final film (1954) he comes close to making this joke a reality, and the result could be his masterpiece. A more extreme degree of stylization is impossible to imagine: the Pacific island setting was re-created entirely in a Japanese studio out of cellophane and paper (Sternberg complained that he was forced to use real water), and the actors who perform this tale of shipwrecked sailors are Kabuki-trained Japanese. Distance is built into every aspect of the production, from the shadowed, filtered images to Sternberg's own voice-over narration, yet the feelings that emerge are incredibly pure and immediate: Sternberg seems to be photographing the absolute essence of human emotion. In English and purposely untranslated Japanese.
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