"It is a relentless excursion into style," Josef von
Sternberg said of his "The Scarlet Empress" (1934). That's putting it
mildly. Here is a film so crammed with style, so surrounded by it and weighted
down with it, that the actors peer out from the display like children in a toy
store. The film tells the story of Catherine the Great as a bizarre visual extravaganza,
combining twisted sexuality and bold bawdy humor as if Mel Brooks had
collaborated with the Marquis de Sade.
film is the sixth of seven collaborations between von Sternberg and Marlene
Dietrich, and the strangest. It juxtaposes a Russia of gigantic grotesque
gargoyles and overdressed towering Hussars with the giggling imbecility of the
Grand Duke Peter and lingering fetishistic closeups of Dietrich's cold, erotic
face. It provides Peter's domineering mother, the Empress Elizabeth, with the
manners of a fishwife, and paints Catherine as a sexual adventuress who is
assigned to provide Peter with a male heir and produces a child who is a male
heir, right enough, but not Peter's.
movie was released in 1934, just as the Hays Office began to police Hollywood
films for morals violations. Von Sternberg must have had a friend on the force;
he gets away with murder. Although the movie wisely sidesteps the famous legend
of the empress' sub-equestrian death, a title does inform us, in sublime
understatement, "Catherine coolly added the army to her list of
see her inspecting the troops with particular attention to their nether
regions, and when she meets the handsome Captain Orloff she says she's
"heard" of him and asks what his job is. "I'm in charge of the
night watch, your majesty." Dietrich's reply is a sensuous purr: "It
must be ... cold ... at night ..." To be sure we get the point, we see
Peter playing with toy soldiers, and then it's observed of Catherine,
"she's always picking up the archduke's soldiers."
Sternberg (1894-1969) was one of the true Hollywood characters, sometimes a
great director, always a great show. He dressed in costumes appropriate to the
films he was directing, made his assistants remove their wristwatches because
he could hear the ticking, and calmly claimed he did it all himself: direction,
photography, lighting, sets, costumes, props, the works. "It takes me a
lot of time," he sighed. Of course he had the usual craft professionals
assigned to all of those jobs, but he certainly controlled the look of his
films, and in "The Scarlet Empress" he compensates for the lack of a
vast canvas by filling a small one to bursting.
interiors suggest the Russian imperial household without showing us much more
than a throne, some corridors, a dining room, a grand staircase and some
bedrooms. We're reminded of how Orson Welles created Kane's Xanadu out of
shadows, props, tricks and mirrors. The fixtures in Sternberg's rooms are
boldly overscale; rough stone sculptures of monstrous gargoyles tower over the
characters, surround them, leer at them. The doors are so heavy it takes two
men or six women to swing them open. And the fur costumes of the wicked Count
Alexei (John Lodge) look so heavy, it's a good thing he's over 6 feet tall and
strong enough to wear them.
is the one who journeys to the hinterlands to fetch the beautiful "young
princess," then called Sofia Frederica, who has been commanded to become
Peter's bride. Sofia has already had quite a childhood; her doctor was also the
hangman, and her bedtime stories involved tortures of the rack and the stake.
In a montage imagining these grisly agonies, a prisoner is hung upside down and
used as the clapper for a bell, and that image dissolves into Sofia swinging
back and forth at play. No sooner do Alexei and Sofia meet than she looks at
him with long fascination, in a closeup where she takes forever to close a
door. The next day, Alexei boldly kisses her. "Why did you do that?"
she asks. "Because I've fallen in love with you, and now you must punish
me," he says, promptly handing her a whip as if the kiss was the price he
had to pay for his reward. Later, on their long journey to the palace, her
mother sees them together at a roadside inn, Sofia again holding his whip.
"What are you two doing down there?" she asks. "Never mind; I
don't want to know."
at the court, Sofia and her mother are greeted by Empress Elizabeth (Louise
Dressler, with a no-nonsense Midwestern American accent). A court doctor
immediately plunges under her hoop skirt to make sure all is in order for a
royal pregnancy. Elizabeth renames her Catherine, "a good Russian
name," and awards her the Order of St. Catherine: "May you wear it in
good health. And be careful it doesn't scratch you."
her betrothed Peter the Great (Sam Jaffe) enters, a grinning, simpering
simpleton dismissed by his mother as a "half-wit." His principal
royal duty is to produce an heir, something he is apparently unequipped to do,
as von Sternberg hints in a scene where Peter is so desperate for a glimpse of his
wife that he drills a spy hole through the eye of a mosaic in his mother's
bedroom, which I think is a Freudian trifecta.
exists surrounded but untouched by this madness, as a locus of carnal
insinuations. She rarely engages the other actors physically; von Sternberg
likes to isolate her in fetishistic compositions of lace, feathers, fur and
fire (notice the shot in which she gazes steadily at Alexei from behind her
veil; the candle flame a few inches from her mouth trembles as she begins to breathe
more heavily). One dress seems made of black-tipped white fur spikes, which
undulate when she moves, like a dreamy underwater porcupine. There is something
both contented and demented in her narcissism; perfectly made up and
exquisitely lighted, she poses for us in von Sternberg's closeups, regarding us
with contemptuous passivity while we commit sins of thought by contemplating
sins of deed.
of her erotic moments are more than passing strange. She and Alexei find
themselves in a stable, where she plunges into the hay, then rights herself and
puts a straw in her mouth sideways. He takes it away. She puts another straw in
her mouth sideways. He also takes that away. She goes through five sideways
straws and five Alexei removals. I have no idea what obscure communication is
taking place here, but there's a payoff later in the film when, to taunt him,
she boldly inserts a straw in her mouth not sideways but stem first, and twirls
it with her tongue. Yowza!
drama, "The Scarlet Empress" makes no sense, nor does it attempt to.
This is not a resource for history class. Its primary subject is von
Sternberg's erotic obsession with Dietrich, whom he objectified in a series of
movies ("The Blue Angel," "Morocco," "Dishonored,"
"Shanghai Express," "Blonde Venus," "The Scarlet
Empress" and "The Devil is a Woman") that made her face one of
the immortal icons of the cinema. Whether she could act was beside the point
for him; it would have been a distraction.
Sternberg has a slapdash way with some scenes, as if impatient when his
attention is called away from Dietrich. Notice his several crowd scenes, in
which peasants materialize on demand, mill about in frenzied turmoil, and are
then forgotten. There is almost no sense of a real society outside the palace walls,
and little enough within, where some of the arrangements would be at home in a
Marx Brothers movie. For the long winter journey to the palace, for example,
Count Alexei supplies piles of furs for Catherine, and then dismisses her
mother with a hot water bottle.
Dietrich is onscreen, however, nothing is too good for her; not only do von
Sternberg's lighting and cinematography make her the center and subject of
every scene, but he devises extraordinary moments for as, as when, clad in a
fur uniform and cape, with an improbable sable military hat, she mounts a horse
and leads a cavalry charge up the grand staircase. "It took more than one
man to change my name to Shanghai Lily," she says in "Shanghai
Express," but it only took von Sternberg to make her Marlene Dietrich.