Sunday, July 21, 2013

Josef von Sternberg / The Salvation Hunters

children of the sun
by Douglas Messerli

Josef von Sternberg (writer and director) The Salvation Hunters / 1925 / the showing I saw was part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Los Angeles Past, Present, Future” series, presented on July 19, 2013 in conjunction with The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA /  organ music was performed live by Robert Israel.

Filmmaker Josef von Sternberg’s first film, The Salvation Hunters we were told last night by his son Nicky von Sternberg, was paid for entirely by the director, clearly a leap faith into the medium by the young cinematographer. Like many of von Sternberg’s later films, in this one we recognize from the very beginning that the director is less interested in a psychologically realist presentation than he is in his Zola-like thematic. Just as I have argued previously for fiction, the early twentieth-century filmmakers had seemingly not yet determined to choose the psychological approach over the theatricality of a picture of ideas. Although von Sternberg’s world presents strong images, they are for the most part, framed and statically portrayed in order to reiterate the issues of his film. Unlike some silent filmmakers, who attempted to keep their storyboards to a minimum, von Sternberg uses the story board continuously, at times cutting to his characters and their environment only for a few seconds before returning his statements to declare, that these figures—a suffering girl (Georgia Hale), an out-of-work boy (George K. Arthur) and a homeless urchin (Bruce Guerin) who, quite accidently, come together as a kind potential family unit when a brute (Olaf Hytten) attempts to engage the girl in sex.

      So von Sternberg tells us, these three victims are creatures of the mud, “crawling close to the earth,” but seeking some way out of their situation. Von Sternberg does not at all attempt to give us their back-stories or an explanation of how that have come to this harbor, but rather defines them according the nets and ropes of the sea-going village, continually cutting across their space with the perpetual motions of the dredge, relentlessly digging up mud from the bottom of the harbor to pour it into a long boat which appears unable to hold it contents, as the mud pours back into the waters only to be dredged up once again.

     Threatened by the brute, the three flee the muddy harbor, traveling to the nearby city (presumably Los Angeles) where they appear equally out of place, with no food or money. Spotting the newcomers a man (Otto Matiesen) and gentleman (Stuart Holmes), offer the “family” temporary quarters, but it is clear that both are doing it only so that they can keep the girl nearby, using her for sex. To break down her defenses, the captors refuse to buy the family any food and they are forced, that first night, to go hungry. On the following day, the boy goes in seek of a job, but comes back to the flat empty-handed. Although the man already has a woman, who appears to be his tortured wife, he again attempts to take advantage of the girl. She seems to consider going along with his offer, particularly when he hands her some money for her services, but the child grabs up the bill and runs, bringing home provisions and temporary protecting the girl from the sex-starved stranger.

     Similarly, the man attempts to pimp the girl’s services to the gentleman, but when that too fails, he determines to attempt to romance her in the out-of-doors. They drive to what looks like a patch of weeds instead of a comfortable pastoral spot; at the entry to this world stands a real estate sign, reading: “Here Your Dreams Come True.” It is ironic commentary on the evil man’s plot, and when she fails to respond to his romancing, the child rushes to the girl’s side, attempting to protect her, the man, just as the brute before him, kicking away the child. Once more, despite his apparent lack of athletic prowess, the rushes to protect the child and girl, this time, for a change, besting the man and continuing to beat him until he falls from the real estate sign into his waiting automobile below. Together, the three, children of the sun, walk off the  sunset. We have no idea where they may be going, but they have succeeded, we are assured in altering their previous lives.

     Although this film, in hindsight, has a great many interesting qualities, it was a complete failure at its premiere. As von Sternberg has written: “The members of the cast were in the audience, which greeted my work with laughter and jeers and finally rioted. Many walked out, and so did I.” Soon after, George Arthur, arranged for Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks to see the film, and reportedly, both reacted with enthusiasm. Chaplin later declares he praised it only a joke. But, in fact, the film’s subject and ending, is not so very dissimilar to Chaplin’s own films—albeit that von Sternberg’s dour film has none of the little tramp’s comic adventures beforehand. And what now seems impossibly dated, represented at the time another possible direction Hollywood films might have taken—and which it did, in fact, experiment with in the later and greater films of the imperious director.

Los Angeles, July 20, 2013

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