How The Scarlet Empress deftly explores the duality of evil and innocence while mapping the rise of Catherine the Great
Nothing, not even Josef von Sternberg’s earlier films with Marlene Dietrich, anticipates the stylistic aggression of The Scarlet Empress, a box-office bomb.
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One of Paramount Pictures’ most prestigious assets was director Josef von Sternberg, a Viennese émigré most known for his seven-film collaboration with iconic actress Marlene Dietrich, who had moved to the States following the success of their first film together, The Blue Angel (1930). The sixth entry in the cycle, The Scarlet Empress, is a loose biography of Catherine the Great of Russia. The arrival of the talkies in the late 1920s had given fresh impetus to studios to remake their silent epics in sound. The year before had seen Garbo play Christina of Sweden in the commercial hit Queen Christina (1933) and Paramount themselves had released Cleopatra (1934), starring Claudette Colbert, a month before to considerable success. But nothing, not even Sternberg’s earlier films with Dietrich, anticipates the stylistic aggression of The Scarlet Empress, a box-office bomb.
Sternberg’s film follows a fairly linear trajectory. Ordained to be married to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia (Sam Jaffe), Catherine (Dietrich) travels from her hometown in Prussia to Russia, accompanied by the handsome Count Alexei (John Lodge). Catherine falls in love with the count, who has described Peter to her in lofty terms. Having reached Russia, Catherine is subject to a series of rude awakenings: Peter is a sinister idiot who devises torture toys, his aunt the current Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) is a cold, cruel ruler who only wants Catherine to produce a male heir to her throne and Alexei appears to be a perennial skirt-chaser. Hardened by her betrayal, Catherine shields herself from the world, weaponising her sexuality and waiting for the right moment to seize power.
It’s a rather intimate, psychoanalytical retelling of Catherine’s story that casts her private romantic problems as the motor of History. It locates the dissolution of her humanity in a wrenching scene in which she discovers that Alexei is also the illicit lover of Elizabeth. Later in the film, after taking over Elizabeth’s private chamber, Catherine restages this primal scene as a form of therapy, this time forcing Alexei into her old role in order to make him recognize the harm he’s done. Catherine’s ascension is conditioned by her private disappointments—the dissolution of her Prussian identity, her unhappy marriage, her heartbreak with Alexei and the her being reduced to an heir-producing machine. "We women are too much creatures of the heart," remarks Elizabeth, lamenting the burden of the crown. It’s Catherine’s predicament too, one which she turns to her advantage.
Nothing in the synopsis above obliges Scarlet Empress to be the film that it is. In the hands of another equally-capable director, this might have been a sober, moving tragedy about thrust-upon greatness. But Sternberg was a sophisticated stylist and he conceives the film in an idiosyncratic form that derives from gothic, baroque and expressionistic tendencies in western art and architecture. Every detail of the film—sets, costume, lighting, dialogue, acting, music—is distorted to a grotesque degree having little to do with reality, leave alone history. Sternberg’s genre-bending treatment of the narrative applies horror movie tropes to a historical psychodrama, resulting in a very campy, very exotic aesthetic comparable to what Sergei Eisenstein would devise years later for his Ivan the Terrible films.
Sternberg’s primary means of breaking away from realism is through a ‘encumbered’ mise en scène, a deep physical space saturated with decorative objects all pointing to the unfathomable cruelty of the Russian royalty: a decadent palace housing gargoyle like sculptures, thrones attached to busts of withered old men clutching their faces in grief, clocks and toys depicting sexual deviancy and human torture, expansive clothes that seem like medieval torture instruments themselves, a skeleton leaning over a dining table, tableware and even food that spell out anguish and pain. (It is a curious irony that the contemporary face of evil, seizing power in Germany as Sternberg’s film was being made, glorified an aesthetic that was the polar opposite of the one pictured here.) The human characters are thus lost in layers and layers of clothing and décor, trapped in an ethos of terror they have little agency over. Catherine is doomed, physically and morally, to the same fate as her predecessors.
Nothing is left to accident in Sternberg’s film. Every visual, every gesture and every word planned in advance — Catherine playing with a suspended rope, falling on a haystack and tucking straws into her mouth for Alexei to remove, Alexei bowing his head in sorrow after Catherine asks him to perform an elaborate ritual, Catherine wrapping the tip of Peter’s threatening sword with a piece of her dress, a high official humiliatingly dropping a diamond in a priest’s plate — everything carrying specific meaning. Working with cinematographer Bert Glennon for the fifth time, Sternberg develops a rather complex lighting pattern that favours certain image planes over others (a similar scheme will be developed in India later by Guru Dutt and V K Murthy). This produces a film of great visual allure as well as ambiguity.
The chief source of ambiguity, though, stems from Sternberg’s bold mixing of tones. The Scarlet Empress is both a tragedy about Catherine’s sealed fate as well as risqué comedy about her sexual conquests. The challenge the film poses is that it never clearly distinguishes these two elements of the film. The duality of innocence and evil is introduced in the film’s first scene, in which a young, bedridden Catherine clutches her doll as her governor reads her tales of notorious Russian tyrants. The calamity facing Catherine registers clearly all through the narrative, reaching its peak in a gorgeously expressive wedding scene in which the bride Catherine’s halting breath threatens to blow out the candle she holds before her veil. Cutting to a soaring choral score, Sternberg films Catherine and Alexei in increasingly tight closeups, freezing them in their despair and helplessness via a characteristic top lighting.
On the other hand, the film suspends us in an attitude of uneasy humour about Catherine’s destiny. This strategy primarily manifests in the figure of Marlene Dietrich, an icon of screen irony. The viewer never once believes in the innocence of Christina even back in Prussia as a young maiden. Dietrich plays up the plain country girl stereotype, feigning wide-eyed naïveté and real love. Starting from this, The Scarlet Empress effects a progressive ‘defeminisation’ of Catherine, her billowing white frock slowly giving way to military furs and finally to a dazzling white uniform with coat and trousers. Catherine’s rise to power thus coincides with a merging of the character with the Dietrich persona. The actor conveys Catherine’s sexual maturity with tremendous humour and wit. The joke on paper (that Catherine the Great slept with the whole Russian army) is taken through all its variations by Dietrich’s actorly intelligence, her manner of introducing wholly gratuitous but suggestive sentence breaks (“And your duties… Dmitri?”) and her typical way of sizing up men around her.
All of this excess somehow passed through the newly introduced Motion Picture Production Code. Part of it has to do with the film’s way of having its royal cake and eating it. A biographical picture situated in a different time and country (Russia, no less) perhaps gave the film immunity from the censors. The sadism, cruelty and debauchery could always be defended by appeal to a dubious historical accuracy. Whatever the case, it’s a wonder that Sternberg managed to go as far as he did, especially at a point where the country was reeling from the aftermath of the Great Depression. Film history is all the richer for it.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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