Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) recounts the rise to power of Empress Catherine II of Russia (Catherine the Great). This was the sixth von Sternberg film that starred Marlene Dietrich and was the second time, after Dishonored (1931) in which she played a character modeled after Mata Hari, that he cast her as a a willful woman in a historically-based drama. Unlike the other Sternberg-Dietrich films, in which the focus is essentially on romantic love, The Scarlet Empress and Dishonored place a greater emphasis on historical melodrama (although, to be sure, Dietrich’s romantic persona is always given attention). This was perhaps von Sternberg’s most extravagant venture into the historical costume drama genre (in his own words, “a relentless excursion into style”), and the film’s most memorable aspects are certainly its lavish production values employing elaborate custom-designed sets and moodily sculpted cinematography. The overall effect of the intense mise-en-scene is the evocation of 18th century Russia, shrouded in the mysteries of semi-barbarism and unpredictable passions. Some reviewers criticized the film (it was not a financial success) for its overindulgence in visual expressionism, but, in my view, von Sternberg should have followed his instincts and gone even further in this direction. It was the failure to realize fully its expressionist potential by tolerating or encouraging some histrionics on the part of some of his cast that ultimately compromised the film.
The story is set during the years 1744-1762, when Catherine rose to power and became Empress of Russia and, though exaggerated in its tone, largely follows the historical record. The narrative has roughly four main sections, which do not fit smoothly together to form a perfectly coherent tale.
- In the opening section, Catherine, born as Sophia Frederica, is shown as a young princess born into the minor family of the German aristocracy. In 1744, at the age of 15, she learns that she is to be betrothed to the crown prince of Russia (later Peter III), whom she has never met. She is to travel immediately to Moscow for the marriage. She is escorted on this trip by handsome Count Alexei, a character who may have been modeled after the real Count Alexei Grigorevich Razumovsky, who was an important figure in the Russian court and was a paramour of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, mother of the crown prince. This section primarily presents colorful backdrops associated with the seven-week journey to Moscow and the sudden change in circumstances of the young wide-eyed teenager.
- In Moscow Sophia is forced to convert to the Russian Orthodox church and change her name to “Catherine”. When she meets the crown prince, her husband-to-be (who was actually about 16 years old at this time but is played by the 43-year-old Sam Jaffe), she discovers that he is far from handsome and behaves in a childish, foolish manner. This section covers the lavish trappings of the Russian court and the extensive ceremonial proceedings of their marriage. Not unexpectedly, the disappointed Catherine does not hit it off well with her new husband, and consequently the Empress, upon learning of this rebellious incompatibility, compels Catherine to become her personal servant in order to “learn how to be a proper Russian wife”. At this time Catherine has another disappointment when she learns that Count Alexei, towards whose private romantic entreaties she had felt a strong attraction, is actually the Empress’s secret lover. So far we are more than an hour into the film, and Catherine has been treated like a pretty slave, deprived of any autonomy and chances for future happiness.
- In the third section, Catherine is shown taking on her own secret lovers, which ultimately leads to her giving birth to the desired son (in 1754), who will be the heir to the Russian throne. Having achieved some standing for this achievement in the royal court, Catherine cynically sets out on a course to pursue power of her own. This is actually a matter of survival, because Peter, who is portrayed as a savage half-wit, reveals his intentions of getting rid of her the moment that he ascends to the throne.
- In 1762, the Empress dies, and as soon as Peter III becomes the czar, he issues a wave of cruel edicts that plunge the nation into violent chaos. Meanwhile Catherine is courting favor with the military and the Church in order to bolster her own political power. One of the lovers shown, Captain Orlov, was a real historical figure, and Catherine displays her new acquired toughness before her old crush, Count Alexei, by flaunting her romantic preference for Olov in front of him. The film ends with a dramatic coup d’etat by the military that overthrows and kills Peter and installs Catherine as the new empress of Russia.
All of these beautifully shot scenes have their evocative effectiveness, to be sure, but they are essentially set pieces that can amplify, but not fully constitute, an effective narrative. In the case of The Scarlet Empress, there are shortcomings in the other areas of (a) acting and (b) the narrative, itself, that ultimately prove fatal to the movie achieving the status of a masterpiece.
There are two insuperable thespian catastrophes in the film that cannot be overcome by any degree of cinematography. The first problem was the disastrous miscasting of Louise Dresser as Empress Elizabeth. Although Dresser was an established character actress, her homespun American Midwestern accent (from Indiana) is utterly wrong for a member of the Russian court. Her verbal style and cornfed mannerisms are more appropriate to Ma Kettle than they are to a queen, and they are deadly to the sustenance of audience immersion in a dark expressionistic fantasy.
Equally alarming is the performance of Sam Jaffe, in his first film appearance, as the crown prince, Peter. Jaffe later got an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), but his performance here is disturbingly off-key. It might be possible to portray Peter as a man of limited intelligence, but Jaffe’s portrayal is so full of leering and wild, manic grimaces that one can only conclude that it was played for laughs. In fact the image of Harpo Marx is almost impossible to drive from one’s mind while watching the film. This ludicrous performance has led some critics to commend it as an early form of high camp, but it is ruinous to any audience involvement in the story. When Dietrich provides innuendo and irony, she usually manages to stay within the scope of the drama. But Jaffe is so over-the-top that all suspension of disbelief is destroyed.
For her part, Marlene Dietrich’s performance is overly constrained, because there is little dramatic range available to her. In Sections 1 and 2, she has to play an innocent 15-year-old, so she can do little more than offer pretty, wide-eyed glances of astonishment. Later on, she has a few better moments, but there are no opportunities for the display of nuance or romantic passion.
The success of any film is crucially dependent on the degree to which the narrative is compelling. In this film, the choppy set pieces fail to maintain a narrative rhythm. In all of the other von Sternberg films with Marlene Dietrich, there is a highly romantic theme that carries the story. In these cases, there are usually two men interested in the Dietrich character, one of whom is a handsome, arrogant, and selfish lothario, while the other is a sensitive gentleman with less obviously prepossessing charms. Dietrich often falls at first for the lothario-type alpha male, but the audience knows that the sensitive gentleman offers her a better long-term chance at happiness. (Critics usually assume that the sensitive gentleman character is an embodiment of von Sternberg’s own civilized sensibilities.) In all these movies, the interest is to watch the dialectic involving this triangle. In The Scarlet Empress, there is again the handsome stud, in this case Count Alexei. But the competing, less impressive, suitor is not a sensitive gentleman in this film, but is, instead, a cruel lunatic. Some people have sensed some metaphorical overtones concerning the evolution of the Dietrich-von-Sternberg relationship in this, but we will not speculate about that here. All we can say is that an interesting romantic dialectic never takes shape in this film.
In fact, there is only a tease. After 87 minutes of film, with the tiresome Empress Elizabeth finally permanently out of earshot, it appears that Count Alexei and Catherine will finally get together for a tryst. But when Alexei, by now thoroughly smitten, finally gets his chance to go to her bedchamber, Catherine sadistically taunts him by employing him as a messenger to summon her new lover, Captain Orlov.
Incidentally, the sturdy he-man, Count Alexei, was played by John Lodge, a scion of the prominent Bostonian family who later served as the governor of the State of Connecticut. His forceful presence supplies some useful dramaturgical weight early in the piece, but it disappointingly fades away to insignificance in the last half of the film. As a consequence, there is never any real, romantic passion shown in this film – only the numerous sardonic references to people using each other as sexual playthings. This may amuse, but it does not captivate.
The political and characterological dialectic doesn’t take much shape, either. In Section 3 of the narrative, Catherine’s transition from naive ingenue to cynical political string-puller, which is the key turning of the story, happens rather quickly and without clear motivation.
While The Scarlet Empress was a stunning spectacle, it was the least successful of the seven films that von Sternberg made with Dietrich. One can watch the cinematographic dazzle with a certain degree of wonder, but that is all. The delirious dream of romantic passion, of which von Sternberg is capable, is not summoned before the viewer on this occasion. But the von Sternberg and Dietrich magic was to return in their next and last outing, The Devil is a Woman.