Film and Television Features

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress had its premiere in May 1934, barely escaping the Production Code that went in effect in July of that year. The timing made the film an affront to the wholesome family entertainment promoted by the Joseph Breen Office. A new era of strong censorship had begun, and Josef von Sternberg’s flight of fancy reveled in the licentiousness that made censors blush: nudity, inference of sex perversion, gruesomeness, and ridicule of marriageThere were enough moviegoers bristling at the prudishness of the new code, yet the film failed to entice them. Its failure had less to do with censorship, more to do with Sternberg’s over-the-top vision and his misunderstanding of the mood of the audience. It would cost him dearly, his power as top-rank director soon to wane. 


The Scarlet Empress was the fifth of six films made by Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Though relations between mentor and muse had been strained, both still relied on each other to keep their careers afloat. Dietrich had just re-signed with Paramount on the condition that she’d be allowed to work again with Sternberg; the director needed another hit to boost his frail ego and his position at the studio. The resulting film only succeeded in widening the gap between them. 


A rival project, Alexander Korda’s biography of Catherine The Great, stole Sternberg’s thunder when it was released in February of that year. Korda’s straightforward account of events became a modest success, and comparisons between the two films were unavoidable. Sternberg’s film got the unfavorable reviews, but his twisted portrait of the Russian Court has grown in stature while Korda’s movie remains a footnote. Sternberg’s sensibility fits well in our post-modern age, which holds in high esteem maverick directors like Almodovar and Tarantino. There is, however, a great deal more here than histrionics and easy effects.  


The director wasn’t afraid to portrait moral ambiguity. Based on the memories of Catherine II, there’s no attempt to hide her shortcomings. MGM toned down Queen Christina’s gender ambiguity with a fictitious male lover, but Sternberg made no attempt to hide Catherine of Russia’s wantonness; in fact, the plot hinged on it as a means to procure power in a corrupt Russian Court. In the end, absolute power, with all its evils, is replaced by absolute power, one more benign but evil still. It wasn’t quite the happy ending expected by Depression audiences, though daily headlines warned of the rise of fascism. 



The Scarlet Empress tells the story of Sophia Frederica, a teenage Prussian princess who is summoned by the Russian Court to marry the Grand Duke Peter of Russia (Sam Jaffe). She becomes enthralled with her escort, Alexei (John Lodge), field marshal of the Russian army. That attraction grows when she learns that the Grand Duke is a grotesque half-wit. She finds a hard taskmaster in Empress Elizabeth, played by Louise Dresser, who has a vice-grip on court affairsUnder her tutelage, Sophia, now renamed “Catherine”, evolves from blushing innocent to cunning schemer. When the old empress dies, Peter becomes emperor, his mental derangement bringing forth injustice and terror. Catherine leads an insurrection against her husband. With his death, she takes over as reigning empress.  


“I did not endow her of a personality that wasn’t her own”, Sternberg once said about Dietrich. Looking back, one must add that all his films since The Blue Angel are perceptions of that personality, each facet willingly polished and glamorized by himAt the center of each film is a strong female character battling the sexual politics of a biased male world, often winning the control game. The Scarlet Empress, purportedly a historical drama, is no exception. Like Catherine, Dietrich was a free agent, her backstage life a rotating circle of lovers, both male and female. 


Though Sternberg was a very private man, his emotional state was reflected in his films. He had once been Dietrich’s main lover, though she remained oyal to her open-ended marriage. At this point, her hedonism must have been a source of bemusement, judging from the film. Alexei never rises from sexual pawn between Empress Elizabeth and CatherineIn a scene, Catherine inspects her personal guards, her expression leaving no doubt that she’s had them all. Dietrich is given the soft-focus romantic treatment, but the plot, though patchy, eschews romance for power politics. 


The film is overtly stylized. Seen today, it seems like the last stand for expressionism before the studio look took over. Art direction, costumes, and photography served Sternberg’s vision, not the sensible concerns of studio executives. Grotesque icons, art, and ornaments often dwarf the actors, yet this visual hyperbole, if not overkill, stands for the excess and moral decay of the court. This is a dense film, both in the blocking of scenes and in the editing, which superimposes image upon image, giving the film a dreamlike quality that is sustained through the climatic race up the palace steps. We leave Catherine drunk with power, but this glance at human perversity didn’t win Sternberg any supporters. Lost in the shadows of his own megalomania, he never saw the value of becoming a team player. 


Sternberg and Dietrich made one last film together before parting ways. Her career hit some rough patches, refusing to be de-glamorized for austere times. She relented with the role of Frenchy in Destry Rides Again, which was a major turning point in her remarkable career. Her mentor, however, did not have her survival skills. After leaving Paramount, Sternberg’s career took a tumble. Seen as a tyrant, and often acting as such, he would be fired from a considerable number of productions. His most notable films during this period, The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and Anatahan (1953), failed to regain his lost prestige. He would spend his last productive years as a teacher of film at UCLA. 


Sternberg’s films, however, have stood the test of time. Never shown on TV except in butchered form, The Scarlet Empress remained an obscure film until its rediscovery by revival-house audiences. No mere curio, this delirious film is the director’s boldest excursion into style.