The Scarlet Empress (U.S., Josef von Sternberg)
Sternberg continued his work with Marlene Dietrich at Paramount with The Scarlet Empress, a lavish biopic of Russia’s eighteenth century Catherine the Great. We follow the young German princess as she is sent to as a bride for the heir to the Russian throne, Peter (Sam Jaffe). The current Tsarina, Peter’s aunt, Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) arranged for the marriage in the hopes that it would settle her reckless and unstable nephew and provide an heir for the Romanov dynasty. Instead Catherine’s presence only seems to make things worse for Peter, igniting bouts of jealousy and paranoia. These are all disturbing traits in the heir to a throne, but when Elizabeth dies and Peter takes over his unbalanced mind turns disastrous with Catherine caught in the middle.
Dietrich delivers one of her best performances as she transforms from a quiet girl to a confident leader. We nervously watch this shy, good-natured German princess thrust into the intrigues of the Russian court and into the arms of an insane and cruel husband. She is convincing as the innocent, naïve girl (no small feat after the public had already seen her in The Blue Angel, Morocco, Dishonored and Blonde Venus); she almost whispers her lines in timid acquiescence, as though being noticed would expose her as a fraud. Her disappointing and terrifying experiences in Russia teach her about life at court and how to use power. I love the scene where she realizes she can have lovers and nervously flirts with Count Alexei (John Lodge) in the stable, testing the waters but not yet confident enough to fully utilize her intelligence, beauty and charm. Dietrich’s Catherine would use these assets, buffeted by her razor sharp mind, to lead a revolt and overthrow her husband’s despotic reign and take power as Empress Catherine.
I think we need to acknowledge the movie’s explicitly anti-Russian bias, though I clearly don’t think this bias is fatal. The opening of the movie declares Russia’s history to be defined by “ignorance and cruelty,” as though the rest of Europe hasn’t had the same history. And Catherine is framed as a salve – Germanic, no less – to this backward history; one of the many title cards proclaims that she was on her way to “the Kremlin to temper the madness of the holy Russian dynasty.” Isn’t it enough to tell her remarkable story without diminishing an entire country’s history? I’m sure there was an anti-Communist subtext running through the film, subtly declaring that Communism is simply the next logical step in Russia’s backward history (so don’t bother dabbling with Marxism; look how crazy these people are!). At the end, after the successful coup, we see Catherine derive her authority and legitimacy from the military and the church. The obvious question in 1934 would have been what happens when they take the church away as the Communists did?
Despite this unnecessary distraction Sternberg has made a beautiful and compelling picture. Like all of his pictures it is beautifully photographed, but this one is darker than most of the others he made at Paramount. The foreboding world of the palace that he constructed stands as great art all by itself. The sets are dark and macabre, decorated with ghoulish statues and candelabras – skeletal fiends often peppered with arrows and faces contorted into grimaces of misery. Sternberg’s vision of the palace cloaked in shadows and dust is wholly unrealistic, but terribly effective. Massive doors which take several people to push open and closed and suffocating religious icons everywhere define Sternberg’s vision of a backward palace and government limping along the same as it had been in the time of Ivan the Terrible. Members of the royal court might ape the fashions of Western Europe, but their minds and government remain bogged down by the weight of their history.
I prefer to ignore its anti-Russian point of view and focus on Catherine’s story and the look of the picture. The performances are also dazzling. Dietrich, as I said, is fantastic, but she is backed up with some effective supporting performances especially Sam Jaffe as her mad husband and Louise Dresser as the outspoken, no-nonsense Empress Elizabeth (in an anachronistic but completely delightful performance). The joy is not in disparaging Russia, but in watching the development of this insecure wallflower discover her power in both intellect and sexuality and how she learns to use both to further her power and modernize Russia. It is truly one of Paramount’s, Sternberg’s and Dietrich’s best.