Dietrich doesn’t become insolent or cheeky, in other words, herself, until halfway into the film. Until then, she is a frightened mouse, which she can’t play convincingly. Still, von Sternberg is a master of light and shadow. Everything looks exquisite. Even Sam Jaffe’s death’s head glows. The line readings have that peculiar rushed, unfelt rhythm typical of von’s films. It’s as if the lines don’t matter.
As a young, inebriated poet careening through the world like a bull in a china shop, my friends often used to call me Catherine. After Catherine the Great. As a heterosexual man I have likewise always felt an uncustomary kinship w/ starlets and divas, often having a tendency to play the roll of holy monster. Revisiting von Sternberg's THE SCARLETT EMPRESS is like turning over in my hand a fossil of my young soul.
The Scarlet Empress is a formidable film, one that is impeccably crafted & slyly subversive. Directed by Josef von Sternberg (the first I've seen by him), a filmmaker known for both being an 'enfant terrible' for his time & an autocratic as a director, it's astonishingly well made & flourishes some of the finest aestheticism of any Hollywood picture of its time (a time which was possibly Hollywood's best). [cont.]
The actors are not trying to hide that they live in the 20th century in the USA, the sets are designed for being "too much", there's no attempt to develop a moral message (i.e. a text in the end that says "Catherine II modernized Russia, blah, blah..." would be out of place). And yet, I couldn't say this film can't be taken seriously, or that it lacks balance, since it takes its style to its last consequences.
A wonderful melodrama, luxuriating in the decadence it purports to abhor. Hollywood actors' broad-brush take on Russian gloom and the many visions of Dietrich's face in close-up turn history into glorious soap opera; yet when the scenery dwarfs the actors it points strongly toward Eisenstein's later, and this time psychological, analysis of an earlier, and darker, period of the Russian Court.
Oozes decadence, sexuality, and flamboyance. Through all the glistening costumes the actors are bursting with energy and maddening power. The master of shadow and light strikes again, creating a universe that is almost otherworldly. One of those rare movies where I don't care for historical accuracy. I just grab my tiara and enjoy the misty ride to sweet oblivion, where the real world is seen through a gauze.
This film is like eating seven-layer cake for dinner: not something you'd want to do every night, but a sublime treat when you're in the mood to be decadent. It's to the immense credit of the performers (especially Dietrich) that they fight through prop, set, costume and camera to emerge as strong, individualized personalities, reveling in their mastery of an utterly sexualized universe. It's a total blast.
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...