Josef von Sternberg belongs in the very top ranks of any list of the greatest filmmakers of all time — and nowhere is this more apparent than in his self-described “relentless excursion into style,” The Scarlet Empress. Bearing the improbable credit that the film is “based on a diary of Catherine II” that was “arranged by Manuel Komroff (whatever that means), the film is Sternberg’s wild, woolly and excessive version of Catherine the Great’s (Marlene Dietrich) rise to power.
But don’t expect anything like Hollywooden Russian History 101 — not from Sternberg. Instead, you’ll be treated to a very personalized vision of “Mother Russia” that opens with an amazing montage of torture and murder being practiced by earlier Tsars — one that is all the more amazing with its sadism and flashes of nudity since the film was one of the first to be submitted (certificate no. 16) to a new “Production Code.” The movie sets the tone perfectly for the events that follow — and for Sternberg’s decidedly unique take on Russia, which is based on his view that Russians behave similarly to Americans and places the characters in outlandish sets filled with oversized, grotesque statuary.
It’s a film where Catherine’s husband, Grand Duke Peter (an over-the-top Sam Jaffe) parades soldiers through the royal palace and is prone to boring holes through the walls to play peeping Tom — the last trait being so common that when Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) sees a drill bit coming through the eye of a painting, she merely remarks, “That must be Peter.” It’s a film where horses will eventually thunder up the inside steps of the palace — accompanied by a mix of Tchaikovsky and Wagner on the soundtrack (the orchestra conducted by Sternberg) — to carry Catherine to the throne.
Not surprisingly, it’s also a very sexualized film — just watch the direction of Catherine’s gaze as she reviews a line of tight-trousered soldiers — that continues the director’s obsession with Dietrich. It offers a series of jaw-dropping gorgeous and fantasticated set-pieces that is unlike anything else ever made. And though Sternberg never owned up to it being anything other than an essay in style, it’s a film with a point about the effects of political power, if only in the final shot of Dietrich, which suggests that she’s not only assumed the throne, but the mental state of her predecessor. This is one of the great films.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke