‘The Scarlet Empress’ or — Tsar Crossed Lovers?

Josef von Sternberg’s ‘The Scarlet Empress’ (1934) is a very silly movie: the seductive Count Alexei is a cross between ‘Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart and Matt Berry whilst Grand Duke Peter seems to be channelling Harpo Marx by way of Monty Python and even the Empress Petrovna seems as Russian as Yankees Stadium. Throw in dialogue that includes lines such as ”That’s absurd. Those ideas are so old fashioned. This is the 18th Century!” and you have one of the silliest movies ever made.

Fortunately Sternberg isn’t bothered in the slightest with historical seriousness but, instead, stylised opulence, illusion of scale, spectacular transitions, emotional intensity, mind-boggling production design and how luminous he can make Marlene Dietrich’s face appear on screen. This is not a film about Catherine’s journey to Russia but Sternberg’s self-proclaimed “relentless excursion into style.” And trust me, the style here is gloriously relentless.

It is the 18th century and Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, a minor member of German royalty with a majorly big name, loves nothing more than playing on a swing in big dresses, growing up surrounded by iron maidens and innocently asking if she can be a hangman one day. Aren’t little girls cute? Then, one day, Count Alexei arrives to take her to Moscow where she is to be wed to the heir of the throne of Russia, Grand Duke Peter. This Count Alexei is handsome, dashing and a sexual beast of a man; if the Grand Duke is even half the masculine hunk this guy is then Sophie is going to be very happy, and satisfied, indeed!

Unfortunately it turns out that Grand Duke Peter is a raving lunatic and about as dashing and sexual as an exploded tortoise. Even worse, the overbearing Empress Petrovna, ruler of all Russia, demands Sophie produce an heir to the throne ASAP as well as changing Sophie’s name to the more Russian sounding Catherine. Oh dear, this isn’t quite what poor Sophie, I mean Catherine, was expecting. No matter, whilst the mad Grand Duke plays with his toy soldiers waiting for the Empress to kick the bucket, Catherine will play with the Russian army, the real army… and in ways you can’t quite imagine. If you thought the Grand Old Duke of York had ten thousand… well, you get the idea.

Once the Empress dies the Grand Duke ascends to the throne yet, in the meantime, Catherine has become quite the smooth operator and grown up quite a bit so it isn’t long before she has designs to take power for herself from this idiot and cease control of the whole of Russia. Sophie might have been a naive girl but Catherine is set to become a great woman. Will she succeed?

Okay, don’t come to ‘The Scarlet Empress’ looking for a history lesson as even though I don’t know my Russian history I’m pretty certain it didn’t quite play out quite like this. But if you want a lesson in unbridled sexuality, S&M, rampant libidos and dazzling visuals then you might learn something here, and then some. You see, there’s potentially more sex here than in any other film I’ve encountered. That old joke a few sentences back about the Grand Old Duke of York? The explicit implication in ‘The Scarlet Empress’ (and I bet she is scarlet as she must be red raw in certain places) is that she HAS had ten thousand men, the entire Russian army to be exact. Notice the scene when she is inspecting the troops, her eyes always zeroing in on their cocks and that look in her eyes. It’s ravenous! And why else do you think her hat looks like an aroused vagina? This movie is filthy!

Likewise her scenes with Count Alexei, all of which positively throb with carnal lust and pulsing passions: he is all furrowed brow and clenched jaw, almost as though he is straining to keep his manhood from bursting out of his trousers, and she’s all bedroom eyes and open-mouth pouts and well aware this poor sod doesn’t stand a chance and that she is making his manhood burst out his trousers. Yet it’s not just about sex but about power although in this film they are exactly the same thing and the power, and balls, are flowing into in Catherine’s cupped hands.

The most sexual relationship, however, is between Dietrich and Sternberg’s camera. I haven’t seen a director shoot his leading lady with this much desire and erotic adulation since Godard filmed Anna Karina, and even then Godard kept his muse aloofly above such base worldly desires. Here we know Sternberg has Dietrich right in the middle of them and that that’s also precisely where she wants to be.

This fetishism extends to the look of the movie which is simply mind-blowing both in texture and intricacy. Sternberg packs the screen with a vast amount of detail, every inch of space crammed to bursting point with visual information. The closest contemporary equivalent, for me, is Aleksei German’s ‘Hard To Be a God’ (2013), coincidentally a Russian film, where there is an overwhelming sense of detail that’s almost suffocating. Everything is hyperstylised which could be why the film also reminded me of Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’ at times with its deep-focus black and white cinematography and exaggerated proportions (it takes seven maids just to open one, massive door to Catherine’s bedroom). You could watch this film dozens of times and still never catch everything contained in it.

But what I love most about Sternberg’s work is that unlike some other meticulous directors such as, say, Kubrick or Tarkovsky is that Stenberg’s films don’t reek of overwrought perfectionism. They have grandeur and majesty but also a sense of breathing space and a fleetness of execution. I always get the feeling of Sternberg shooting fast and quick, of not labouring over countless takes or spending months on a scene resulting in stagnation or hermetically sealed self-importance (although I have no idea of Sternberg’s shooting method so simply going by my reaction to what’s on the screen).

Not only that but despite all the shimmering beauty and sumptuous grandeur there’s also the sensation that if you poked any of the sets, backdrops or scenery that they’d disintegrate and break, that they’d collapse into a pile of paper mache, crepe paper and silver painted cardboard and I love it when a movie does that, when you know that it is all an illusion made by ingenuity and wit rather than throwing endless money for lumbering exactitude. Considering this film is an epic it’s amazing how it reminded me of low-budget filmmaking, specifically the low-budget work of Kenneth Anger and James Bidgood where opulence is concocted out of base materials combined with an undercurrent of open sexuality.

Then there’s Sternberg’s other kinky peccadillo, namely awesome transitions. There’s a great one near the beginning where after a montage of torture and violence we see a dead body swinging inside a bell acting as a human clapper before dissolving to a young girl playfully swinging on a swing, mirroring this horrific image with one of innocence. It’s a great transition of foreshadowing that illustrates Catherine’s future might be filled with terrible violence too. Is it subtle? God, no! There’s nothing subtle about what Sternberg is doing in this movie in the slightest but do we come to the movies for subtlety or for extravagant excess? I think I know what Sternberg’s reply would be. Oh, and I hope you like bells, lots of bells because Sternberg sure has a hard on for tintinnabulation and this movie has A LOT of bells.

‘The Scarlet Princess’ great. Yes, the story, drama and characters are either crazy, daft or ridiculous and often a combination of all three, but Sternberg absolutely meant it when he claimed this was ”a relentless excursion in style”. It is a journey I can’t recommend taking highly enough. It’s magnificent.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Comedy — PG-13 | 1h 35min | Comedy, Fantasy, Romance | 19 February 2021 (USA)

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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