The Scarlet Empress (1934)
“The Reigning Beauty of the Screen!”
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe
Synopsis: During the 18th century, German noblewoman Sophia Frederica, who would later become Catherine the Great, travels to Moscow to marry the dimwitted Grand Duke Peter, the heir to the Russian throne.
Josef Von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress is unlike any movie made by mainstream Hollywood during the studio system, and it leaves you wondering whether Paramount actually realised what they were getting for all the money they lavished upon it. It’s a manic, frantic oddity which feeds on its eccentricities, using them to fuel ever more outrageous ideas within a Gothic world which claims to be Russia in the mid-1700s but is in reality a nightmarish fantasy land in which ghoulish statues brood like despairing gargoyles in the darkness. It’s a world in which light has no place, populated with grotesques who systematically wipe out the childlike innocence and wonder with which the young Princess Sophia of Germany (Marlene Dietrich — Shanghai Express, Destry Rides Again) is filled when she first arrives.
She is to be married to the Grand-Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), whom Count Alexei (John Lodge), her escort to Russia, assures her is a fine figure of a man. In truth, her future husband is a perpetually-smiling half-wit who talks in a whisper, plays with toy soldiers, and drills holes in the wall of the boudoir of his Aunt, the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Louise Dresser — The Eagle), so that he might spy upon her. Sophia’s repulsion towards her appointed husband earns her the wrath of Elizabeth, which is only partly tempered when she finally gives birth to a son. Peter’s outrage suggests he’s been nowhere near his wife’s bed, but Elizabeth seems unconcerned that the royal child might not have been fathered by her nephew, and her death marks the beginning of a desperate power struggle between half-mad husband and ruthlessly ambitious wife.
The opening credits’ boast of a cast of 1000 supporting players is open to question and misleads the audience into believing we are about to see some sweeping epic when The Scarlet Empress is really a much smaller scale study of the corruption of a pure soul by a depraved environment. But then it’s not the plot, the writing or the acting which stays in the mind (even though each of these is quite acceptable), but the look of the film, and the impression that we’ve somehow entered the dark-fevered dream of some slightly unhinged genius. The film has a logical narrative chronology, and yet it also has that spurious logic of a dream which makes sense to the dreamer even when it’s nothing more than a jumble of scenes. It really should have been a silent movie — and had it been, The Scarlet Empress would probably be even more highly regarded than it is today.
The drama unfolds in the paradoxically claustrophobic confines of an obscenely gargantuan palace which is large enough to defeat the meagre glow of the torch-lights that line its walls. Characters move in and out of deep shadows, with those in the foreground viewed as chiaroscuro cut-outs. The gloom is oppressive, fashioning not only the atmosphere but, one suspects, the twisted nature of the characters who reside within it, and it’s no wonder that Sophia’s innocent spirit is soon crushed. Her future as a sexually-charged manipulator of both men and empires is foreshadowed in the transitional shot that introduces her to us: her genteel back-and-forth motion on a garden swing mimicking the same motion of a torture victim used as a clapper in a giant bell. Her radiant beauty attains a hardness as the film progresses, and her body becomes an instrument with which she realises her ambitions by seducing the army.
The Scarlet Empress provides an experience few other movies even dream of attempting. Von Sternberg reveals his fetishistic obsession with Dietrich’s face through lingering shots that dwell on every contour, but this contemplation on beauty is juxtaposed with equally compelling studies of the madness and ambition of both the Russian royalty and the building in which they plot and connive.
(Reviewed 28th September 2014)