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The Scarlet Empress: The Criterion Collection

The Scarlet Empress (1934) whisks you into another dimension. The sixth of seven collaborations between Sternberg and his cinematic muse, Marlene Dietrich, it is one of the most bizarre films to come out of Hollywood. Based on the life of Catherine the Great, the film follows her Alice in Wonderland journey from innocent child to bride of the loony heir of the Russian throne (Sam Jaffe). Sternberg's film is unrelenting in its lushness. In The Scarlet Empress, it's hard to tell the furniture gargoyles from the human furniture. But like Kubrick, Sternberg seems to actively pursue bad actors. Take John Lodge, who plays Count Alexei, the man charged with escorting Catherine to Russia and who claims to fall in love with her. Lodge, a terrible actor, bites off his role with mouth curling sarcasm. Yet his very badness fits into the overall pattern of the film, which embraces parodic extremity as a guide to the human condition. Even Dietrich herself really isn't all that good by the standards of mainstream films. But normal standards of evaluation do not apply in the phantasmagorical worlds Sternberg creates. Sternberg's camera floats magically over this world. His crane shots are amazing. His lighting is at the height of perfection. His editing is sharp, sarcastic, and witty. And the film is surprisingly well-written for something that at first seems solely a visual work. Criterion has not digitally restored the print of The Scarlet Empress on their DVD release, but they have provided a top-notch, full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from a print that does unfortunately bear some scratches and reel change markings. Audio is in Dolby Digital 1.0. Included is an essay on Empress by influential film scholar Robin Wood, who has written on the film before, followed by a brief essay by underground filmmaker Jack Smith, reprinted from the journal Film Culture. An extensive still gallery is on board as well, but the most significant supplement is the half-hour documentary profile "The World of Josef von Sternberg," broadcast on the BBC in 1966. Interview segments with Kevin Brownlow alternate with narrated views of Sternberg giving a masterclass in studio lighting. Sternberg himself is as mystical and Olympian in the interview as he is prickly and peevish with the youngsters surrounding him on the set. It's a rare glimpse of a little-seen director in action, and it greatly enhances this valuable DVD release. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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