Scarlet Empress, The (1934)

“It must be cold — at night…”

Synopsis:
A naive German princess (Marlene Dietrich) is sent to marry the “cruel, cowardly half-wit” nephew (Sam Jaffe) of the Russian empress (Louise Dressler), and charged with producing a male heir — which she does, though not by Jaffe, who she can’t stand. When Dressler’s health begins to fail, Jaffe dreams of being with his lover (Ruthelma Stevens) and having absolute power over the nation and his wife — but Catherine, now much more self-confident, has other plans.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Josef von Sternberg’s astonishing, self-described ‘relentless excursion into style’ is the most idiosyncratic of his seven Marlene Dietrich films, and one of the most bizarre films ever to emerge from a Hollywood studio.” He notes that “Sternberg was one of the few directors to recognize and explore the link between sexual politics and political power”: “the film is about a woman who rejects her fate and through self-determination achieves self-preservation”. He adds that while Dietrich’s “whole life has been spent following the life’s course others set out for her”, “once she dutifully gives birth to a male heir… she is through being pushed around and goes on the offensive to realize her personal ambitions, using what she acknowledges to be her own ‘special’ weapons”. The first half of the film shows “Dietrich as she has never been in a Sternberg film, without her absolute control, sense of irony, air of superiority, mystery, or indifference” — but by the second half, “suddenly, thank goodness, Dietrich is back, living by her wits, her own code and logic, manipulating men who once thought they were controlling her.”

Peary goes on to write that “visually, the film is dazzling, the most imaginative American film of the sound era prior to Citizen Kane” — and while Sternberg apparently liked to claim full auteurship over his films and not give appropriate credit, he did work “closely with Paramount’s costume designer, Travis Banton; with imported Swiss artist Peter Balbusch, Hans Dreier, and Richard Kollorsz on the incredle Byzantine sets (which were meant to be ‘recreations’ of the Russian court); and with cinematographer Bert Glennon on his masterly composed images”. As DVD Savant writes in his review, “There is hardly a close-up of a character that doesn’t share the frame with a giant gnarled hand or twisted wooden face. It’s as if the drama were being played out amid a castle crowded with petrified ancestors.” Peary adds that most of “the film’s most memorable scenes have no dialogue, just music and sounds effects to heighten the impact of the extraordinary images: the wedding ceremony; the wedding banquet; and the sweeping finale”. He ends his GFTFF review by asserting that “Sternberg’s greatest, most perverse film has still not received its due”.

To that end, in Alternate Oscars, Peary names this “bizarre film — some would say berserk” — Best Movie of the Year. In this review, he highlights Dietrich’s performance, noting she’s “perfect as Catherine; she is fearless, sardonic, indifferent, playful, ambitious, and as naughtily flirtatious as Mae West”, turning from a “naughty innocent — ripe for seduction” into a “shrewd libertine, and then in her triumph, a monster who relishes both her power and the means by which she obtained it”. He adds that while she “may be crazed”, we “forgive her, if only because she’s still preferable to Peter” (played by Jaffe, who is “ideal as the demented ruler”). Peary writes even more about the film in his first Cult Movies book, where he notes that it “stimulates the senses with provocative sexual imagery, often of a perverse nature; breathtaking montages of barbaric torture, some nightmarish, some realistic; mammoth palace chambers, heatless and sparsely furnished, with heavy, fifteen-foot-high doors that groups of nameless scurrying ladies of the court struggle to open, and large, weirdly sculpted gargoyles, saints, faces, and bodies twisted into attitudes of great suffering; [and] an eighteenth-century Russian court full of oddball characters one would more expect to find in Alice’s Wonderland.” It’s all truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and well worth at least a one-time visit.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlene Dietrich as the Empress Catherine
  • Bert Glennon’s cinematography
  • Consistently mesmerizing sets and costumes

Must See?
Yes, as an entirely unique cult classic.

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