The sixth of seven collaborations between Marlene Dietrich and von Sternberg, this is the story of the German princess Sophia Frederica and her betrothal to the Russian Grand Duke Peter, becoming Grand Duchess Catherine. Described by his mother as an imbecile, Peter proves to be no match for his sexual adventuress wife, who becomes Empress on his succession to the Russian throne. Made in the liberal atmosphere prior to the Hays Code, “it juxtaposes a Russia of gigantic grotesque gargoyles… and lingering fetishistic close-ups of Dietrich’s cold, erotic face.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (Cert 12A)
Dir: Josef von Sternberg 100 mins USA 1934
The Scarlet Empress
USA 1934 100mins Cert 12
For all lovers of cinema, viewing tonight’s film is practically a religious experience despite, on its
first release, being appraised as a costly, indulgent box-office failure – in much the same way that Griffith’s
Intolerance, von Stroheim’s Greed or Ophüls’ Lola Montes were first received. It was von Sternberg’s name that was ‘scarlet’ in contemporary Hollywood but his work on the staging of the film, its frame compositions and camera movement, producing both rich tapestries of decadence as well as moments of great beauty, has been entirely vindicated by the passing of time and by more enlightened, modern-day, critical attitudes.
Primarily a comedy, though one played out against the most gorgeous of backgrounds, the film shows von Sternberg
at his best, balancing his love of décor against his desire for comic invention. Critics of the day, refusing to believe anyone could make jokes about history and failing to comment on (or even notice) his insolent wit, saw the film as a melodrama in which Marlene Dietrich was effectively smothered by furniture and thus prevented from giving the tragically intense performance they felt was dictated by the character of Catherine. In fact, von Sternberg, in revenge on the Hollywood studio system and the star that had backed him into a corner, chose to cast Dietrich as a mere pawn in a game over which she had no control. It is to her real credit that, while existing as a kind of earthly goddess in the never-never land of his eccentric mind, she’s both entirely believable in her portrayal of Catherine’s progress from wide-eyed innocence to cynical political ambition and ironically distanced from it in a way that only she could pull off.
Like the diaries* on which it is based, the film can also be seen as essentially a justification of the character of Catherine, who became one of the most independent, intelligent and powerful women in history. As in Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus, Dietrich’s Catherine manages here to turn the tables on her male lover-adversary and still win his respect. In this reversal of conventional sex roles and in the frank depiction of the sexual basis of power as well as the power of sex, The Scarlet Empress is easily forty years ahead of its time. One doesn’t have to be familiar with the legends surrounding the death of Catherine the Great to realise the sexual signification of the final sequence of the film or the unmistakeable erotic resonance of her panting exhilaration as she ascends the throne, her lust for power finally assuaged.
* Screenplay adapted from the diaries by Manuel Komroff, with uncredited screenwriting contributions by Eleanor McGeary.
John Baxter, The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg
Tom Flinn, The Velvet Light Trap
Anon, Television Guide International
“I completely subjugated my bird of paradise to my peculiar tendency to prove that film might well be an art medium”
Josef von Sternberg
Sophia Frederica/Catherine II – Marlene Dietrich
Count Alexei – John Lodge
Grand Duke Peter – Sam Jaffe
Empress Elizabeth – Louise Dresser
Prince August – C. Aubrey Smith
Gregory Orloff – Gavin Gordon
Director – Josef von Sternberg
Producer – Josef von Sternberg (uncredited)
Screenwriter – None credited
Cinematographer – Bert Glennon
Original Music – Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Wagner
Music arranger – W. Franke Harling et al