Unfiltered Sternberg. Perhaps his most opulent and visually spectacular film -- That feast scene! Those sets! Dietrich in fur! -- but I felt this less deeply than some of his other films. Perhaps that's because Dietrich arcs from emotionally vulnerable child into an ice queen rather than starting out as an ice queen and slowly revealing her fragile interior. Still, Sternberg is the master of mise en scene.
I disagree with those who say this is von Sternberg's best film, but it is quite an achievement. The early montage sequence shows why the director was one of the finest of the silent era, and then the last half of the film shows why he is probably the best director of the 1930s. And anyone who has ever doubted the chops of Dietrich just watch the scene in which she gazes on her pathetic husband and his mistress.
It certainly is an imperfect film but yet lavishly beautiful and unique! Visually barroque, the film has an arresting effect that highy compensates for what it lacks in narrative or dialogues. And who cares, anyway! Besides, the silent era was't so far behind...mouths were still trying to get used to words & voices! Also, Marlene Dietrich candle-litten close-ups are worth gold! love it!
I wanted to like this more--and the transition from naif to seductress by way of intertitle worked well enough for me--but the acting seemed straight out of a Laurel and Hardy picture (John Lodge's Alexei and Louise Dresser's Empress, especially), bearable but out of place. Given how surreal the visuals are, perhaps this was intentional, but for the initial viewing, it was distracting.
The cinematography is impressive, the costumes are marvelous, the sets and visuals are mind-blowing, Marlene Dietrich is absolutely beautiful...... but the dialogues are poor. If it were not possible to write good dialogues, it would have been a great solution to leave the film silent, with only music.
A ghoulish fiance, plaster skeletons at the dinner table, and fur, fur, fur make for a truly nightmarish palace and von Sternberg does an great job of using the set to give you an utterly claustrophobic sense of Imperial Russia. But boring dialogue and Dietrich's erratic acting (blank eyed dolly to wily seductress) do nothing to develop the character or convey even a hint of her future illustriousness as monarch.
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.