Filmmaker-svengali Josef von Sternberg escalates his obsession with screen legend Marlene Dietrich in this lavish depiction of sex and deceit in the 18th-century Russian court. A self-proclaimed “relentless excursion into style,” the pair’s sixth collaboration follows the exploits of Princess Sophia (Dietrich) as she evolves from trembling innocent to cunning sexual libertine Catherine the Great. With operatic melodrama, flamboyant visuals, and a cast of thousands, this ornate spectacle represents the apex of cinematic pageantry by Hollywood’s master of artifice. —The Criterion Collection
Born in Vienna, director Joseph von Sternberg spent much of his youth in New York; his entrée into show business was as a film repairer for the World Film Company of Fort Lee, NJ. After returning to Austria to complete his education, he joined the U.S. Signal Corps as a photographer in 1917, then took assistant director jobs after the end of World War I. It was either actor Elliot Dexter or an anonymous producer who suggested that Sternberg would go farther in the industry if he affixed a “von” to his last name, à la Erich von Stroheim. Von Sternberg went whole hog in creating a “genius” veneer, adopting a strutting, imperious attitude, dressing in regulation beret and puttees, and even growing an obnoxious little mustache so he would be certain to be hated and feared. This posturing tended to obscure his genuine cinematic gifts, especially in the field of photographic lighting and composition (at one point, he was the only director permitted to carry an American Society of Cinematographers… read more
batshit insane decadence, flamboyant disregard for history, pure aestheticism and sex. dietrich is off the chain. gird your loins.
Just re-watched this again. One's reminded of Murnau's dictum "A camera angle should intensify, not exist solely for beauty." (I'm paraphrasing) That being said, almost every shot in this film is essential, not a single one extraneous. For now, my favorite of Von Sternberg's films, and perhaps one of the best examples of a perfect congruence between aesthetic and theme.
It's been eleven years now since Criterion released this on DVD. That said, when will they get around to releasing an upgrade? The 2001 release of this film was just not up to their well-known standards, and this is one that deserves better. Witness the three Von Sternberg silents released as a set two years ago, all possess exceptional sound and image quality. Probably not high on their priority list, but still...
Corkscrewing two images: a Florentine mural potentially hiding a Da Vinci; and a Russian icon, definitely hiding Marlene Dietrich.
In the new Voice, J Hoberman reviews the film he's placed in the #3 slot on his top ten of 2009 list (and for more on the Voice poll and
Whether or not the survival of The Weinstein Company rides on the box office success of Inglourious Basterds (and to hear Harvey tell it
In all of Von Sternberg, aesthetic worth is not irreconsible with the films content, but rather married to it. This film, 1934’s “The Scarlet Empress” is the most obvious and extreme example of this… read review
The Scarlet Empress is the first film I’ve seen by Josef von Sternberg, and I’m impressed. I found out that not only did he do the cinematography on many of his films – he also edited, did costumes… read review
What a wonderful film!
It’s quite ridiculous,fun, dramatic and crazily elating all at the same time. You’d never expect such a mixture in a biopic about the rise of Catherine the Great. Then… read review