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.”
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Sternberg offers more than a hint of onanistic delight in detailing Catherine’s gradual perversion from doe-eyed girl to hood-eyed seductress, but mixes it with a powerful strand of feminist-minded melodrama, a form popular in the pre-Code era that was just moving out of favour. Yet Sternberg laid a template for whole zones of modern popular culture yet to be invented.
As we try to properly absorb any number of disturbing psychological and thematic associations, one thing is certain: we’re out of the usual comfort zone established by most big-budget “golden-era” Hollywood studio filmmaking.
"...Catherine coolly added the army to her list of conquests." someone asked me why i liked old movies. it hink i got the answer: i like old movies for the perfect overt covertness of sentences like that mentioned before.
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.]
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!
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.