The Scarlet Empress
Josef von Sternberg
- Marlene Dietrich as Princess Sophia/Catherine the Great
- Sam Jaffe as Grand Duke Peter
- John Lodge as Count Alexei
- Louise Dresser as Empress Elizabeth
An exotic, visually bursting at the seams movie that loosely follows how Catherine the Great became that very person of majesty, The Scarlet Empress has to be one of the most unusual and ornate movies of the 30’s. Which doesn’t come as a surprise because Josef von Sternberg is behind the camera and his favourite subject of Marlene Dietrich is shown in an almost fetishistic way that makes the whole package a spectacle and then some.
It is the 18th Century: Sophia is a German princess who is selected to marry Grand Duke Peter of Russia. Peter is the heir to the throne and nephew of the commanding current Empress Elizabeth, whose idea it is to marry her nephew to this girl in the hope that she can provide a son who will one day rule. The young Sophia is a sweet-natured and innocent young girl who sees this as her duty to perform. She is escorted to Russia by the darkly handsome Count Alexei, who is struck by her beauty and quickly falls for her. Upon arrival in Russia, the romantic Sophia discovers that her betrothed is nothing more than a slithering imbecile and she has to change her name to Catherine. And matters don’t much improve once she is married as the domineering Empress Elizabeth pressures the girl to produce an heir as quickly as possible. The newly renamed Catherine frequently clashes with the Empress and though innocent, she starts to rebel against order. In this, she finds excitement with Alexei, as well as other men in the army. When the Empress dies, the drooling and malevolent Paul becomes ruler and sets about his duties with tyranny. Meanwhile, having slowly become quietly intelligent and able to use her allure to her advantage, Catherine evolves into a calculating and ambitious woman, who eventually strikes and seizes the throne for herself.
Historians will obviously take issue with the presentation of events here as they are romanticized to a high degree, but I don’t believe the intention of the film was to produce something of indisputable historical fact. I think the overall presentation of The Scarlet Empress was to chart the transformative journey that Catherine took and of course to show off the luxurious detail and decadence, which Von Sternberg orchestrates with Svengali like precision and command. And when I say detail, man is this movie packed to the ceiling with a supernatural level of abundance that refuses to leave. Josef von Sternberg paints the Russian court as a phantasmagorical and almost logic-defying place of scandal and pressures. Darkness is never far, as visualized through the persistent shots of grotesque gargoyles and emaciated frescoes. Here is someone who doesn’t need you to feel credence towards what he displays, as he is drawing things through his expressionistic view. The director is clearly firing on all cylinders by utilizing a high level of techniques, from montages to overlapping shots, his detailed hands are never that far from the audience’s view. It’s like stepping into another world and it all feels rather mystical, something this particular reviewer enjoyed immensely. One of the best examples is the wedding dinner. In the scene, we are shown a gluttonous banquet as the camera surveys the residence, occasionally stopping to pick up on Catherine. The level of grotesque decadence is tangible and it enables von Sternberg to indulge in a most unusual spectacle of cinema at the height of fevered exoticism. The film covers a lot of ground and it does cram a hell of a lot into its running time; this sometimes making the venture a bit uneven and occasionally ponderous. Yet the sheer amount of frenzied excess is more than enough reason to view this film for lovers of striking cinema. The Scarlet Empress could almost play as a silent film and still have an impact, especially as it has intertitles that carry the plot on and the thundering score that you would expect to back up the strange happenings and demented display. Though saying this, the dialogue for the time is pretty suggestive and has a certain naughty value to it, that gets you to ponder how some of it made it past the censors.
Marlene Dietrich never looked more beautiful or aloof as she does here in the role of the changing member of royalty. While the camera is in love with her and the main focus of the film is for Josef von Sternberg to circle and display the magnetic Dietrich, she also contributes a finely tuned performances among the excess. Morphing from a naive innocent to powerful seductress with her eye on power in a subtle yet expressive way, Marlene Dietrich holds the attentions with her spellbinding impact and unmatched aura of glamour. Sam Jaffe is scarily effective as the idiotic and very mad Peter; I will admit to shivering quite a few times watching his character sneak around the castle with his eyes ablaze with insanity. John Lodge, though a little flat, cuts a dashing figure as the nobleman entranced by Catherine, while stealing the supporting honors is Louise Dresser on bolshie form as the possessive and much angered Empress.
Lush in the extreme and stylish with a capital S, The Scarlet Empress won’t be too everyone’s taste because of its many excesses. But as an example of visual cinema at its most evocative and fruitful, it can’t be missed.