The Scarlet Empress (1934; Josef von Sternberg) is like the dark side to The Wizard of Oz—but better: because, at the end, this Dorothy doesn’t do something as stupid as give up a magical kingdom—far from it…
Although “based” on the diaries of Russian ruler Catherine the Great (yes, she of pony-coitus infamy), The Scarlet Empress is as amazing and fantastical as any sword & sorcery tale—but better: because this one ends like The Godfather…
This is the first von Sternberg film I’ve seen, and I’m hooked!
The Scarlet Empress is unique and utterly personal: strong, vibrant and often witty characters in detailed, often outrageous outfits storming through overwhelming, gargoyle-infested hyper-surrealistic Gothic sets.
Brilliant cinematography and montage (both by von Sternberg); and for a film that often feels like a silent movie (long segments without dialog; inter-titles; the amount of camera movement; etc.), there is an incredible sound design, with a music score that mixes Wagner, Tchaikovsky and others perfectly.
Shot entirely on giant sets, with copious use of miniatures, there is an intense Anti-Naturalist tendency about The Scarlet Empress, one that increases the mood of the fantastic: only magicians and wizards would live in crazy castles like this!
The acting is all top-notch, too, especially Sam Jaffe as the addle-brained Grand Duke, John Lodge (the future governor of Connecticut!) as the noble, but werewolf-like Count Alexei—
and then there’s Marlene Dietrich as Catherine, completely possessing the role.
Wow…from ingénue to sultry conspirator of regicide, Dietrich rules the screen and we are with her 110%!
The Scarlet Empress is another film to add to the “Best Old Films Discovered This Year” list: a sexy and exquisite production with immaculate production design, with a fabulous message: the advice of your parents’ is worthless, and kill your enemies.
Not that most of the “in-crowd” don’t know that already; The Scarlet Empress is on DVD via The Criterion Collection.