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The Scarlet Empress: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe,
and Louise Dresser

Written by Manuel Komroff,
from the diary of Catherine the Great

Directed by Josef von Sternberg

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

"Because I am an artist."

— Director Joseph von Sternberg, on why he traveled
to the beautiful nation of Japan for his last movie,
The Saga of Anatahan, only to shoot the film entirely
in a studio.

*          *          *

Film buffs in their cups talk of transcendent experiences, of being transported by a great film to another plane. With the beer going up their nose and their eyes wandering once again weakly over to the waitress in the corner who looks like Heather Graham, they lean on the bar and breathe into the ear of their all-too-patient auditor about the films they are most enthusiastic about. And instead of reporting this renegade to the Thought Police, the film nerd's equally enthusiastic companion will go off on his own rapturous rant over some film he loves, while the first guy's eyes glaze over and his mind wanders back to his own cinematic obsessions.

Film buffs have a hard time listening to each other. Nevertheless, this level of love for cinema is laudable. Unfortunately, all too often the films they are talking about are products of the LucasBerg Industrial Complex. There aren't all that many websites dedicated to the exquisite nuances of silent cinema or the work of more obscure Asian or European directors. These movies require time and work to unleash passion for them. Conversely, it's not all that hard to "get" a Spielberg or Lucas movie. Everybody in the audience for these films is grasping the same "nuances" at the same time, which is predictable, given that these movies all more or less look alike, and they don't usually challenge the viewer's sensibility.

So let's talk about a truly transporting experience. The Scarlet Empress takes you into another dimension, not only or sight and sound, but of mind, a journey into a land whose boundaries are that of imagination. You think you have stepped into some cinematic time-warp free of producers or any other restraining force, where the John Waters of the world flourish.

And that The Scarlet Empress is even better than that. You don't go to many places as weird and lush, nor as internally coherent, as the 18th century of Josef von Sternberg's imagination.

*          *          *

The Scarlet Empress was the sixth of seven collaborations between Sternberg and his cinematic muse, Marlene Dietrich. It was among the most unusual in that the film is set in the past, and it is based on an actual person. Generally, Sternberg's aesthetic demanded total detachment from recognizable reality. No matter. He bent 18th century Russia to his will.

Diectrich and Sternberg were quite a pair, and a host of books about the actress have failed to elucidate it adequately. At the very least he found in her a perfect model for the lighting effects he wished to create. But curiously, the narrative arc frequently found in the stories of the Sternberg-Dietrich films was replicated in their professional lives — Dietrich as Woman, as Survivor, as the person who moved on with men's lives in shambles in her wake, was reiterated in her professional relationship with Sternberg. Her career flourished, while his faltered. With her, she took away her the lighting techniques and other tricks she learned from Sternberg. The film that inaugurated their separation was The Scarlet Empress.

One of the most bizarre films to come out of Hollywood, Empress also marked the beginning of the decline in esteem in which Sternberg was held by his peers. And it all came down to one shot. Sternberg was accused of proflicacy while making the film because he included an expensive-looking shot of masses rushing to a palace, ostensibly to celebrate the birth of a royal heir. The problem was, Sternberg says that the shot wasn't his, but "sampled" from The Patriot, a film by Ernest Lubitsch, who also happened to be the head of production at Paramount (and who didn't even recognize the shot as being from one of his own movies). As he says in his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, "The film was, of course, a relentless excursion into style, which, taken for granted in any work of art, is considered to be unpardonable in this medium." More important, Sternberg was accused by the critics' community of trying to ruin Dietrich's career by "assassinating" her with a bad performance. But (as we shall see in a moment) Sternberg was never particularly concerned with actorial excellence. He was more interested in puppets who looked good under his lighting grid.

*          *          *

Adapted from what the credits say is the diary of Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress hitches the viewer to the whirlwind ride Catherine takes up the Russian aristocracy. Before her Alice in Wonderland style journey, she starts out as a wide-eyed 14-year-old named Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst (Dietrich, of course), the rather simple seeming daughter of an obscure German prince, Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst (C. Aubrey Smith). Somehow she is selected by the ruling Russian family to be the bride of Karl Ulrich, duke of Holstein-Gottorp, grandson of Peter the Great and heir to the throne of Russia as the Grand Duke Peter, to whom she was distantly related, though that's not mentioned in the film. Historically, she arrived at Russian court in 1744, where the matriarch Elizabeth (Louise Dresser, who hilariously enacts this monarch as if she were an American tenement gossip) ruled. Elizabeth instantly gave the teen a new title and name, Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna, and shortly after she married Peter (Sam Jaffe).

The marriage was not a success. For one thing, Peter was an idiot. He was at the very least some kind of neurotic, and is reputed to have been a recalcitrant alcoholic who was also probably impotent. Sternberg makes him a drooling voyeur with a passion for soldiers and executions. In reality, Catherine was married to Peter for 18 years, a time of daily humiliation for her in the intrigue-filled court. Empress telescopes this period, but historically Catherine engaged in a lot of reading and study (alluded to in the film) and a subtle consolidation of future power. When empress Elizabeth died on January 5th, 1762 (apparently of natural causes), a power struggle erupted in court, which serves as the climax of the film.

Sternberg's account of Catherine's life is set almost entirely indoors, and then mostly within the confines of the palace, with its huge doors, gargoyle-decorated chairs and walls, and secret passages. What Sternberg for the most part leaves out, the better to concentrate on the emotional transition of his lead character, is the outside world, which at the time included hostilities between Russian and a host of countries, including Prussia.

None of this matters to Sternberg. In his telling, Catherine goes from playful cherub to cunning political manipulator. Nor was his the first nor last movie featuring Catherine the Great. Other Catherines include Tallulah Bankhead (A Royal Scandal, 1945), Binnie Barnes (Shadow of the Eagle, 1950), Bette Davis (John Paul Jones, 1959), Hildegard Knef (unusually erotic in Caterina di Russia, 1962), and even Jane Fonda, who unofficially in Spirits of the Dead replicates one particularly licentious bit of royal gossip about the empress. Perhaps the most important character in the genesis of this film was an entirely different ruler, Queen Christina. Garbo had just played her, and Dietrich at Paramount seemed to be in constant competition with Garbo over at MGM. If Sternberg's film is a response to Garbo's, Paramount must have viewed it as an abject failure. The most significant Catherine in relation to Dietrich's, however, was that of Elizabeth Bergner's in Catherine the Great, released the same year as The Scarlet Empress, and of course rated more highly, no doubt due to the fruity, theatrical, and all-too-conventional performance of the lead.

Sternberg's film, in its outrageous visuals and sensual materiality, wipes the floor with its competitor. It's unrelenting in its lushness — and as is well known, American audiences have a low tolerance for style in movies. In The Scarlet Empress, it's hard to tell the furniture gargoyles from the human furniture. 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. It would be more of a shock if Lodge were moderately competent, because that would violate the tone of the film. (By the way, Lodge, after a lackluster acting career, ended up Governor of Connecticut and then ambassador to Spain. It is unknown if he applied the lessons learned from the film to this secondary career. He left the movies in the early '40s, only to return in the '60s, compounding — if that is possible — the lack of distinction of his career by appearing as a Russian spy in In Like Flint, and as himself in a Jerry Lee Lewis special.)

If Lodge is the supreme, snarling Casanova, and Jaffe the babbling moronic brat, than Dietrich's Catherine, in Sternberg's conception, represents a line of development from the infantile dependence of Jaffe to Lodge (though she meets them in the reverse order). Sternberg emphasizes this by registering that Catherine and her mate in the arranged marriage are "twins." They both start out as equally blond and bug-eyed, and both show, at one point or another, a linked, childlike interest in executions. But while Jaffe remains a cross between Harpo Marx and Elsa Lancaster as the bride of Frankenstein's monster, Dietrich's Catherine evolves from the cupie doll cuteness of Shirley Temple to the razor-sharp, hip-swinging predatory sexuality of Mae West.

Even Dietrich herself really isn't all that good in Empress by the standards of mainstream films. She's asked to make a drastic character change halfway through the movie (not unlike that of Catherine Zeta Jones in Traffic). But normal standards of evaluation do not apply in the phantasmagorical worlds Sternberg creates. This is no conventional, dull-as-dirt biopic. 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. "Would you like him to be handsome?" Lodge's Alexei asks the young Catherine about her husband-to-be. "Would you like him to be better looking than all men, tall and gracious? Well, he's all that and more. He's the handsomest man in the Russian court, tall and formed like a Greek god, a model in fashion and deportment which all of us strive to follow."

The Scarlet Empress arrived in 1934, just as the repressive Hays Code was established to censor Hollywood films. Thus, there is actual full-frontal nudity visible early in the movie, and a degree of undisguised frankness about sexuality and promiscuity. Dietrich was most famous at the time for her legs and, knowing this, Sternberg cruelly kept them hidden from the public in their later films except for unpredictable, quick flashes. But seeing Dietrich's legs is almost the least shocking thing about Empress, which surveys gluttony, sexual barter, sadomasochism, and voyeurism (to which end Jaffe carries around a ludicrous drill to create peepholes in the walls, both being activities that would have made him feel at home in a De Palma film). Once Catherine learns that she's different from little boys, there's no stopping her rise to power. She's the kind of character whose body has gone to her head.

*          *          *

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.

— D. K. Holm

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