The Scarlet Empress (1934, Josef von Sternberg)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Josef von Sternberg made three of the loveliest films of the late silent period in Hollywood; Underworld, The Docks of New York and The Last Command are all emotive, stylish landmarks of American filmmaking, but nothing in those movies (or even in The Blue Angel, the director’s first collaboration with the incomparable Marlene Dietrich) gives any hint of the pure style and almost overwhelming cinematic chutzpah of his magnificently bizarre, surreal reenactment of eighteenth century Russian history. The life of Catherine the Great is hardly predictable as the source of one of the most forward-looking, energetic and untethered features of the 1930s, but The Scarlet Empress brims with a kind of explosive, violent life whose closest comparison in classic studio-era film might be nothing less than Citizen Kane — it really is that imaginative, that risky, that manic and fun.

As the credits would officially have it, Empress takes its inspiration from the actual diaries of Catherine II, whose reign began with the coup d’etat of Peter III, which is where the film ends. As such, it’s a loosely reality-based document of Catherine’s emergence from lowly Prussian princess to legendarily promiscuous independent force of nature, all prior to her actual reign; truthfully — and by Sternberg’s own admission — it’s an excuse for a great director to indulge himself and to galvanize us with fantasies of excess and primal excitement, of the visual and physical varieties. He seems to thrill at the absence of any force to stop him from creating something this absolutely crazy; the opening credits are literally the only part of the film that are not stuffed with information and action. Roger Ebert once wrote that it was “as if Mel Brooks had collaborated with the Marquis de Sade,” and there can be no more apt description for the film’s bold mixture of impulsive, sadomasochistic flaunting of wealth and power, and bickering, sniping, cutting humor and irony.

The rapidity and wit of the dialogue, which sounds like nothing else broadcasting from the Hollywood of the time — as much a world apart as the eerily modern exchanges in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Scoundrel, but from the opposite end of the realism spectrum — is only one element of this incredible richness, but it has the same sensory impact of constant stimulation and filling of the senses as the sheer ferocity of the directing and performances. Screenwriter Eleanor McGeary gives the peerless slate of character actors much to sink their teeth into, led brilliantly by John Davis Lodge as the virile proto-rock & roller Count Alexey, Sam Jaffe as the weak and oafish Peter III, the unforgettable Louise Dresser threatening to steal the film from Dietrich as Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, and Olive Tell as Catherine’s sycophantic mother, and they clearly love the opportunities offered by the script’s frankness, coming in just under the Hays Code deadline. The insults and tension fly with abandon, and Sternberg’s interest in extremes, which extends to the heavy use of contrast in Bert Glennon’s photography (he later shot Stagecoach), assigns them with no obligation to temper their performances. Therefore, Jaffe is able to really become a sort of pathetic monster, grinning vacantly as he announces “I hate my wife”; and Lodge steps boldly into frame and places his tongue firmly in Dietrich’s mouth without apology; Dresser takes the wind out of everyone and everything in her path of destruction; while Dietrich herself gets every sort of emotional and sexual mileage imaginable out of her deliciously wicked transformation from deferential waif to unabashed sensual goddess.

It’s often noted that Sternberg’s films with Dietrich followed a narrative of women chewing men up and expelling them, but assuming that this is generally just a marker of his own misogyny rather than some buried sense of righteous justice misses how carefully and completely he and McGeary set us up to identify completely with Catherine, easily as much as we do with, say, the geisha in Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion or Sylvia Sidney in Sabotage, two other films from this decade that now come across as strongly anti-patriarchal. Because Catherine is uprooted at an early age possessed of an eagerness to please, and because we watch her being grossly misled about the man who’s to become her husband and then plowed and manipulated by others repeatedly, we strongly feel her dejection and loss of faith in the systems that prop her lifestyle, and we get a nefarious thrill out of the moment when she turns completely away from the constraints of her life and beds a security guard, more yet when she calls Alexey in for private counsel just to rebuff his constant advances. Little wonder that when Catherine is shown as an eager participant in her husband’s assassination, we root for her strongly along with — so it would seem from the film’s interpretation — the Russian population.

The actual experience of watching The Scarlet Empress is almost impossible to describe, insofar as it’s difficult to suss out Sternberg’s own feelings about nobility, wealth and power — the crux might be that, like so many of us, he’s simultaneously repelled and fascinated by the extremity of waste and decadence he allows us to witness. Like so many American films about monarchs and the rich, this one subsumes us in opulence — its immaculate, Ufa-derived set design approaches D.W. Griffith levels of over-the-top, gargantuan proportions, and with a level of detail rarely seen in cinema outside of fantasy, sci-fi and Wes Anderson movies — but never before or since has such a rendering resonated so strongly as the setting of what amounts to a horror film, from its early montages of fiery torture reconfigured as bedtime story for the young Catherine to the gargoyle-filled, cavernous Kremlin that seems a physical manifestation of a nation’s utter, screaming insanity. It’s hard to name another Hollywood film, even Kane, that so brazenly associates wealth with dread, bloodiness and fear. The actors, meanwhile, behave as though they are in a Caligari-like Expressionist classic, none more than Jaffe whose cackling madness is initially a feature of Charles Laughton-like comic relief before he comes increasingly to resemble a Lovecraftian monster.

In the 2010s it’s very difficult not to have a visceral reaction to The Scarlet Empress, a film that means to force its audience’s submission and wholly succeeds all across its busy 104 minutes. To begin with, it’s alarming to know that it was ever possible to make a film like this in Hollywood at all, much less for a major studio like Paramount in the 1930s, a film that serves less as a love letter to its lead actress than as an openly amoral evocation of an almost demonic sexual obsession with her — one man’s psychosexual nightmare captured messily on film, without the careful distance or coded genre tropes of even a Vertigo. It’s truly elevated, singular, relentless entertainment, unhinged and honest and vital, and its miraculous abuse of the by now well-established studio system could keep your head spinning for days, as you slowly fall back into the comparatively barren real world, like you’re waking up from the wildest dream you ever had.

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