It’s a cultural crime that several of Josef von Sternberg’s films no longer exist. We shouldn’t be cheated out of seeing anything created by the artist responsible for The Blue Angel, Morocco, and The Last Command. Fortunately, one rarity has been saved and is now available on DVD through the Austrian Film Museum. The Salvation Hunters (1925) was preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive (with funding from the Stanford Theatre Foundation) and proved to be a real eye-opener when it was first screened in 2009. It was Sternberg’s first film—although hardly his first experience behind the camera—made independently on a shoestring. It remains as daring and unusual today as it must have seemed ninety years ago.
The Salvation Hunters is a poetic parable about three lost souls who find the strength to go on by sticking with each other. Filmed on Los Angeles locations like San Pedro Harbor, it features George K. Arthur (who would soon achieve stardom at MGM in comedic roles), Stuart Holmes, a familiar character actor typecast as an oily bad guy, and an unknown actress named Georgia Hale, who would impress Charlie Chaplin so much he signed her to costar in his upcoming production The Gold Rush. In many cases the locations upstage the actors; a huge mechanical dredge dominates every scene in which it is featured.
The Salvation Hunters is, for want of a better term, an art film. Von Sternberg said he was trying to “photograph a thought.” As film scholar and UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom writes in an essay that accompanies the DVD, “While it has been praised as America’s first avant-garde feature film, the art-film circuit was not what von Sternberg had in mind. His idea was to mainstream his conception of cinema art. When it was screened in the fall of 1924 and during 1925, it was so unusual, yet endorsed by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, distributed by United Artists and highly praised after advance screenings by influential critics, that many reviewers didn’t know how to describe it – maybe it was a work of genius, maybe the opposite.”
Bergstrom’s half-hour video essay about von Sternberg and the making of The Salvation Hunters is extremely rewarding. The disc also features the only surviving fragment of the director’s lost (and highly-praised)1929 feature The Case of Lena Smith, starring Esther Ralston. Discovered by Hiroshi Komatsu in 2003, the scene depicts revelers at a Viennese carnival/midway and shares the burnished look of Sternberg’s other late-silent Paramount features like Underworld and The Last Command. You can purchase the disc directly from the Museum HERE. (In 2008 the Austrian Film Museum published a book which attempts to reconstruct the long-lost movie from existing stills and published material. It is distributed in the U.S. by Columbia University Press and can be purchased HERE
Film buffs are indebted to these individuals and institutions for their diligence in bringing this material to light. Janet Bergstrom’s essays and commentaries on von Sternberg and Murnau should serve as role models for scholars everywhere.
In a happy coincidence of timing, Josef von Sternberg’s experimental Japanese-language Anatahan (1953), made after his Hollywood career had expired, just played in New York City and will be released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber on April 25. According to a press release, “First released in the U.S. in 1953 and re-released in 1977 in an iteration more closely resembling Sternberg’s original vision, Anatahan has long been out of circulation and difficult to see. Kino Lorber has licensed the film from Josef’s son, Nicholas von Sternberg and worked with the Library of Congress, Lobster Films, and the Cinematheque Française to collect the best materials, including the original picture negative, to create the definitive version of Anatahan—according to Sternberg: ‘My best film.’ ” To preview this restoration, click HERE
Now if someone could only locate copies of Woman of the Sea (1926) and The Dragnet (1928), which are still officially lost, we’d be all set!