The Scarlet Empress

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USA, 1934

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Production: Paramount Pictures, Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 109 minutes. Released 7 September 1934.

Screenplay: Josef von Sternberg, adapted from a diary of Catherine the Great by Manuel Komroff; photography: Bert Glennon; production designers: Hans Dreier, Peter Balbusch, and Richard Kollorsz; music arrangers: John Leipold and W. Frank Harling; additional music: Josef von Sternberg; special effects: Gordon Jennings; costume designer: Travis Banton.

Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Sophia Fredericka, or Catherine II); John Lodge (Count Alexei); Sam Jaffe (Grand-Duke Pierre); Louise Dresser (Elizabeth); Maria Sieber (Catherine as a child); C. Aubrey Smith (Prince August); Ruthelma Stevens (Countess Elizabeth); Olive Tell (Princess Johanna); Gavin Gordon (Gregory Orloff); Jameson Thomas (Lieutenant Ovtsyn); Hans Von Twardowski (Ivan Shuvolov); Erville Anderson (Chancelor Bestuchef); Marie Wells (Marie); Edward Van Sloan (Herr Wagner).



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* * *

The Scarlet Empress was the penultimate work in the series of six films Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich for Paramount— a series made possible by the international success of The Blue Angel. The series must stand, taken in toto, as one of the most remarkable achievements within the Hollywood cinema, and The Scarlet Empress as one of its peaks, yet its relationship to that cinema is highly ambiguous. Scarcely conceivable outside the studio/star/genre system, the films were progessively unsuccessful at the box office, and increasingly frowned upon by the studio bosses. The reasons for this are complex. First, von Sternberg (like Orson Welles after him) broke the fundamental rule of classical Hollywood cinema by attempting consistently to assert himself as an "artist" through elaboration of a highly idiosyncratic personal style; whereas Ford, Hawks and Lang, for example, were able to develop, quite unobtrusively, personal styles that did not conflict with the law of authorial invisibility. Secondly the tone of the films proved increasingly disconcerting. On a superficial level, they seemed frivolous and cavalier (and audiences perhaps suspected that, if there was a joke, they themselves were its ultimate butt); on a deeper level the films were disturbingly intense and obsessional.

Critics, committed to characteristically unsophisticated bourgeois notions of what is serious (The Blue Angel) and what isn't (The Scarlet Empress), missed the deeper level altogether, repudiating the films as decadent exercises in "style" with no "content," as though the two were logically separable. Von Sternberg's own pronouncements have unfortunately endorsed this view, describing the film's subjects as "fatuous" and declaring his own exclusive interest in "the play of light and shade." Sergei Eisenstein acknowledged the influence of The Scarlet Empress on his own Ivan the Terrible (leaving aside obvious similarities of imagery, they do have the same essential subject, the perversion of sexuality into the power drive). Generally, however, the two works have been assigned to quite distinct categories: Ivan the Terrible is a work of art, The Scarlet Empress an example of "camp." But in fact, a scrupulous analysis of the films will reveal that von Sternberg's is no less serious than Eisenstein's.

The matter of levels is important. The Scarlet Empress defines meticulously the level on which it is serious and the level on which it isn't. It is not serious about Russian history: the intermittent facetiousness (John Lodge ridiculing Catherine's old-fashioned notions of conjugal fidelity on the grounds that "this is the eighteenth century") is there to repudiate the meretricious solemnity of the Hollywood historical epic. It is serious about sexuality and gender roles. Dietrich's complex star persona involves the difficulties surrounding a woman's assertion of autonomy in a world created and dominated by men. The Scarlet Empress develops her persona to one of its extremes. The film's imagery is amazingly dense, suggestive and systematic: for example, the dissolve from the young Catherine innocently clutching her doll to the "adult" doll of the Iron Maiden; or the progression from the child's innocent question "Can I be a hangman some day?" through the intricate bell imagery that recurs throughout, to the moment when the adult Catherine rings the bell that is the sign for the assassination of her husband and her seizure of absolute power. The action of the film is dominated by women throughout, but by women who have accepted patriarchal roles and thereby become monstrous. Catherine herself, her natural desires frustrated and perverted, becomes the ultimate monster, cynically using her sexuality as a weapon. Her growing assumption of the male role is answered by the increasingly feminization of her husband (at the climax, she is in soldier's uniform, he in a flowing white nightgown). The culmination is one of Hollywood's most ambiguous and devastating happy endings: the heroine triumphs over all adversity—at the expense of her humanity, and perhaps her sanity.

—Robin Wood

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