The Scarlet Empress [DVD]
Screenplay : Manuel Komroff (based on the diaries of Catherine II)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1934
Stars : Marlene Dietrich (Sophia Frederica / Catherine II), John Lodge (Count Alexei), Sam Jaffe (Grand Duke Peter), Louise Dresser (Empress Elizabeth), Maria Sieber (Sophia as a Child), C. Aubrey Smith (Prince August), Ruthelma Stevens (Countess Elizabeth)
Josef von Sternberg's sixth of eight collaborations with screen siren Marlene Dietrich, The Scarlet Empress, is a dense, visually astounding portrait a woman evolving from an innocent, inexperienced, and idealistic girl to a shrewd, calculating empress who uses all the tools at her disposal, including her immense sexuality, to gain absolute power.
Unfortunately, one of the problems with The Scarlet Empress is that Sternberg's visual tableaux are so provocative and overwhelming that the nuanced depiction of young Sophia Frederica's evolution into Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, gets buried. As a critic wrote in his 1934 review in The New York Times, the actors "seem to lose their hold on humanity under Mr. von Sternberg's narcotic influence, and become like people struggling helplessly in a dream." This is quite true when first viewing the film. However, The Scarlet Empress is a film that absolutely must be seen twice to gain a full appreciation of what it is doing. The first viewing is for taking in the gaudy visuals, while the second allows those visuals to recede somewhat to the background so the human drama can move toward center stage.
The story is ostensibly a biography of Catherine II (Marlene Dietrich), originally named Sophia Federica, a German princess who was born in the mid-18th century. Early in her life, she was married off Grand Duke Peter III (Sam Jaffe) of Russia, described in one of the film's less-than-subtle title cards as "a royal half-wit."
Inexperienced in the deception, intrigue, and plotting of royal life, Catherine is astounded that Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), Peter III's mother, brought her to Russia for the sole purpose of bearing a male child who could succeed her. She soon learns how to gain power, though, especially by wielding her burgeoning sexuality. While Peter loses influence and popularity with his insane, violent tactics (including mass executions), Catherine silently gets the entire Russian army on her side by taking most of them into her bed. In this way, the film makes an interesting juxtaposition of sex and violence as tools for accumulating power, and its infatuation with Catherine's sexuality (not to mention a few brief glimpses of female nudity) makes it clear that this was a film that slipped through the Production Code approval process before it was fully enforced in late 1934.
Of course, during the first viewing, the more subtle aspects of Catherine's immense transformation is lost in Sternberg's excessive mis en scene, which is not surprising when you consider that, in his 1965 autobiography, he likened his actors to mere spots on a canvas. In The Scarlet Empress, Sternberg goes over the top, filling the barbaric 18th-century Russian court with an assortment of gargoyles and statues of men carved in various stages of pain and anguish, their distorted faces filling every corner of the frame, glaring and moaning in silence, making it is impossible to get away from them. They support stair banisters, the ceiling, and even form the backs of chairs. Elizabeth's mirror is overlooked by a leering demon, complete with horns and wings, and Peter's throne is a giant griffin, the arm rests fashioned out of its extended claws.
Pain is one of the central motifs of The Scarlet Empress, beginning with a brutal sequence in which the young Sophia hears stories about the great Russian tsars Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible and imagines a lengthy succession of tortures, beatings, and executions, climaxing in a shot of a man helplessly flailing upside down as he is used as a clapper in a giant bell. These portraits of human suffering are echoed through the rest of the movie in statue-filled mis en scene, which emphasizes the rawness and violence of the Russian empire at that time.
The visual nature of the film is further complicated with candelabras, pillars, tapestries, and lace curtains, which are everywhere, breaking up and fragmenting the light into patches and streaks of brightness and shadow that are as evocative as anything to be found in German Expressionism. Not a single shadow is misplaced, and Sternberg's careful compositions tend to work against the drama in the film, as he more often than not privileges the set design and lighting over the humans.
This is, of course, true with the exception of Dietrich. By this point, Sternberg had perfected the art of capturing her beautiful visage on film, and he doesn't disappoint here. Unlike her other portrayals of sexually domineering women, here Dietrich plays what are essentially two roles: the naive Sophia Francesca and the powerful Catherine. That Dietrich's fine performance is often overshadowed by some of Sternberg's visual excesses is a shame. Nevertheless, a second viewing of the film allows one to fully appreciate her work and the way Sternberg's lighting and camera angles emphasize her innocence in the first half of the film and her cunning in the second.
Kudos should also go to Sam Jaffe who, in his first film role, is one of the true delights in The Scarlet Empress. He plays Peter as a leering snake, his face almost skull-like, his eyes wide, but completely vacant, his mouth almost impossibly stretched into what appears to be a constantly forced grin. It is a mannered performance, to be sure, but also shocking in the way he morphs from infantile to brutal once he takes the throne.
In some ways, the necessity of seeing the film twice is a liability, as it is evidence of Sternberg's inability to fully integrate the visual and emotional. Yet, The Scarlet Empress stills stands as a unique, daring piece of cinema that, while never fully successful, is nothing short of utterly intriguing.
|The Scarlet Empress: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| The World of Josef von Sternberg: 1967 BBC documentary |
Production stills and lobby cards
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|The Scarlet Empress is presented in a new digital transfer in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but the scars of time are indeed quite evident. Although the overall quality of the image is acceptable for a film that is nearly 70 years old, many scenes are replete with nicks, scratches, and other visual signs of aging. The depth and luminosity of the black-and-white images have remained quite strong, with good shadow detail and fine shadings of gray to bring out the detail of Sternberg's elaborate mis en scene. Although Criterion is usually fetishistic about noting the source materials for all their transfers, for some reason that information was left off of this release.|
|The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack holds up fairly well. Although a bit tinny at times with an expected amount of hiss, the soundtrack sounds about as good as one could expect, given its age.|
| The main supplement is a 20-minute black-and-white documentary made for BBC Television in 1967 titled The World of Joseph von Sternberg. Although brief, it is an interesting portrait of the director, and it features a brief demonstration of his lighting and filming techniques. Sternberg comes across in the documentary as a humorless man who would not have been very enjoyable to work with. At some points, he appears to be irritated at being interviewed for the documentary, which isn't too surprising, as Peter Bogdanovich once wrote about him, "he seemed actively to dislike talking about his films--the answers were always short and abrupt--as though he wanted to get it over with quickly to move onto something more interesting, or less painful." Bearing that description in mind, it's amazing that the BBC filmmakers got as much out of him as they did. |
Also included is a thorough gallery of about 45 production stills, as well as handful of colorized lobby cards. In addition to the always-interesting liner notes (contributed on this disc by film scholar Robin Wood), the insert fold-out also includes a fascinating, but somewhat rambling, tribute to Sternberg written by underground filmmaker Jack Smith and originally published in the Winter 1963-64 issue of Film Culture.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick