The Scarlet Empress is one of the most bizarre, opulent and sexually suggestive major movies around. It somehow managed to squeak through just as Hollywood's morality code slammed shut the door on fairly explicit sexual situations. It features the stunning beauty of Marlene Dietrich, moving effortlessly from innocent but hopeful sexuality to the cool and manipulative sexuality that can seduce an army and win an empire. There's enough fetishistic leering to fill a textbook. "Why did you do that?" the young German Princess Sophia Frederica (Dietrich) asks her handsome escort, Count Alexei (John Lodge) after he kisses her while on their way to St. Petersburg to meet her royal fiancee. "Because I have fallen in love with you," he says, handing her a whip, "and now you must punish me for my effrontery." Or the scene where Sophia is examined for suitability by a doctor with his hand under her skirts while she is engaged in conversation with the Empress in front of the court. Or a scene at the wedding banquet where a drunken guest uses his teeth to rip a bite from the snout of a roast pig head.
Alexei delivers Sophia intact to the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) and her half-wit son, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), a grinning, cowardly, sadistic imbecile. It is Elizabeth's wish that Sophia, whom Elizabeth immediately renames Catherine, bear Mother Russia a son and heir precisely nine months after the wedding. Catherine is appalled but will do her duty if she must. Peter is petulant, much preferring his toy soldiers and his equally petulant mistress. Eventually a son and heir is born, sometime after Catherine, who is quickly learning the ways of the Russian court, encounters a handsome guard one night on the grounds of the palace. The only one who is sure the son is not Peter's, of course, is Peter. Elizabeth dies and Peter becomes Czar. He seems to take most pleasure from marching his Prussian soldiers around the palace, issuing decrees that oppress the peasants, occasionally taking a pot shot at a palace guard (and occasionally hitting him) and humiliating Catherine. During this time, however, Catherine has been laying her own plans, which seems to involve laying most members of the palace's Cossack guard. When Peter issues a proclamation stating that Catherine is now dangerously ill, Catherine and her Cossacks, all in white and on horseback, take things in hand decisively. As Count Alexei says to himself as he watches them ride off, "Exit Peter the Third, enter Catherine the Second." The movie ends with Catherine new on the throne, soon to be known as Catherine the Great.
This was von Sternberg's sixth film with Dietrich, starting with The Blue Angel. It's no exaggeration to say that he created the image who became Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich herself always gave much credit to von Sternberg. But the film was not a success, von Sternberg's star in Hollywood quickly waned, and Dietrich moved on to other directors with a force of character and determination that became legendary.
What are some terms that might give an idea of this movie?...exotic, ridiculous, intentionally and slyly humorous, romantic, decadent, oppressive, ornate...it's all of these. Above all, as others have said, it's a movie of high style. The Russian court is filled with courtiers in heavy furs, chairs with great, carved gargoyles with swollen knuckles looming over the people seated in them, candles askew throwing dark, dark shadows over stairs and hallways, coarse but clever manners, veils and gauze. The credits state there's a cast of a thousand, and it looks as if there are...a thousand serfs, a thousand soldiers, a thousand courtiers, a thousand priests, a thousand candles, a thousand horses. Through it all Dietrich's Catherine moves with growing assurance in the sexual skills she can use to win an empire. Von Sternberg photographs her in close-up with candlelight through veils and sheer drapes. With her blond hair, plucked arched eyebrows and elegant bones, the effect is stunning. The scene where Catherine inspects her personal guard is a masterpiece of sexual innuendo and hilarious style. When she walks down the line of soldiers at attention, her eyes glance below their belts as often as she looks at their faces. When she stops before one and asks about him, her interest in his enthusiasm for active duty doesn't mean bravery fighting the Turks. The Scarlet Empress is a hothouse plant that is a joy to watch.
This is one of Criterion's early releases. The Region 1 DVD transfer is very good. The one significant extra is a 20-minute BBC documentary about von Sternberg. It's an interesting interview inter-cut with a film of him working with a group of students, showing them how to light a scene. Von Sternberg was an autocratic director who knew exactly what he wanted and had the confidence to insist on it. As he says, "I don't admire anyone." There also is an informative brochure with an essay about the movie.