The Salvation Hunters (Josef von Sternberg / U.S., 1925):

Cézanne has the geometric apple, Char marvels at "l’énergie disloquante de la poésie," Josef von Sternberg sets out "to photograph thought." The harbor sets the eloquently squalid stage, doleful strays and rusty leviathans drift in the void. In the world of archetypal abstraction, the lad (George K. Arthur) is somewhere between "the Children of Mud" and "the Children of the Sun," the girl (Georgia Hale) is a hard-bitten survivor impaling suitors with a sidelong glance. Add a tiny orphan (Bruce Guerin) and a black cat, and the makeshift clan of "Flotsam, Jetsam and Company" poses for a deadpan Human Condition pamphlet. Admirably foregrounding the machinery of symbolism, Sternberg posits the divine hand as a steam-dredge’s iron maw, laboriously sliding across the screen and dipping into the waters for endless helpings of sludge. ("For every load of mud the claw dislodges, the earth laughed and pushed in another.") The trajectory out of the ooze and into the sky, no rush. The approach is pictorial first and foremost, but a pictorialism literally cracked by submerged emotion: a marine vista broken up by ropes and pipes, a smoky cityscape divided by diagonal wires, figures posed against a blank wall near a gaping fissure. The dandified pimp (Otto Matieson) and the fallen dame in the soiled kimono (Nellie Bly Baker) embody the Big City, where Hale has to rent herself to ward off starvation while Arthur pantomimes visions of ludicrous luxury. "Who put you in charge of my morals," she snaps at the seaman, who finally eats his spinach and thrashes his foe behind a sign reading "Here Your Dreams Come True." Three decades early and here is Antonioni’s largo rhythm, the port of sorrowing wryness vividly recalled by Visconti (La Terra Trema) and Bergman (Hamnstad). It all ends on a note of uplift effectively mocked by every subsequent Sternberg film. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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