In the case of his excursions into historical drama, director Joseph Von Sternberg only used the past as a kind of malleable tableau on which to impart his own creative vision. Once more the cornerstone of this vision is Marlene Dietrich, and she is poised to become the greatest monarch of her time: Catherine The Great.
A nice bit of tribute finds Dietrich’s daughter (Maria Riva) portraying Sophia in her youth. Her movie mother’s only desire is to find a fine husband for her to marry to improve the family’s stability. Her father is a far more benevolent figure (C. Aubrey Smith).
Very early on there is the juxtaposition of ghastly torture mechanisms reminding us how dastardly humans can be with their cruel devices. Contrary to this is the sheer opulence and in this regard, The Scarlet Empress is all but unparalleled in its generation of period dramas. Historical accuracy be hanged.
The story continues with pace which is usually a welcomed addition when it comes to the often sluggish genre of period drama. Marlene plays her opening scenes wide-eyed, with a kind of spaced-out innocence. Because she is still a creature of adolescence as she gets sent to Russia as the betrothed of Peter III.
Her husband to be (Sam Jaffe in his debut) is vacuous, head on a swivel with a dopey incredulousness plastered on his face. Meanwhile, her demonstrative Queen Mother (Marie Dressler) remakes the impressionable girl to her liking — with a new name, new clothes, and all the expectations that come with her new station. More than anything else, she is expected to bear a son, an heir to the throne, and this is her primary usefulness. This is her only agency.
It’s almost gluttonous how indulgent the wedding sequence and all the subsequent sequences are in their pomp and regal showmanship. With the nation still dragged down by the Depression, one questions if the common man was taken with the escapism or was nauseated by the sheer extravagance.
While the images are visually splendorous, initially there are far too many title cards interspersed. However, they do begin to make their purpose more evident as the movie never seems to get unnecessarily bloated by dialogue. In some respects, they do set a kind of narrative precedent and use that to create a rhythm throughout the movie. It’s almost more like a silent picture, more concerned with a sweeping overview of a life — the impressions left behind — than honing in on every significant moment.
The sheer scale is staggering in the most extraordinary manner because there is no CGI. Von Sternberg has manicured and incubated this entire consolidated world inside the palace that’s without equal.
The lighting, the ornate touches, gossamer canopies veiling Dietrich’s face in her chamber, and then outside the inner court hosts of ghoulish gargoyles, statuettes, and iconography of the Pantokrator fill the halls. It gives this uneasy sense of orthodoxy mixed with German Expressionism, but Von Sternberg utilizes it well. The Scarlett Empress really does feel like an exhibition for his skills as a wizard of mise en scene and environment. The costuming certainly is another extension of this.
Dietrich doesn’t really come into her own until a good hour and 10 minutes into the movie. From thenceforward there’s no stopping her consolidation of power. With his mother on a sharp decline and then on her deathbed, the king (Jaffe) is ready to marry his mistress and cast his wife out as he makes his long-awaited ascension.
But Catherine is no longer that ignorant girl she once was who merely avoided her gawky husband. She now knows how to play the political game — the kind of nepotism a station like hers relies on, and she readily uses all the means at her disposal.
Her feminine wiles mean she has the army in her skirt pocket bent to her whim. One of her greatest allies and lovers is the dashing rapscallion Count Alexei (John David Lodge). She has a secret passageway in the back of her chambers where she can usher her lovers in and out so they realize they aren’t totally indispensable.
What’s intriguing about the movie is not distinct plot points but growing to understand the textures of the world and how they form and shape the people in their midst. The Scarlet Empress becomes as much about how people look and how they carry themselves as much as anything else.
Marlene Dietrich might be altogether unmatched in this department. Purportedly she requested her iconic fur hat to be created especially for her, and it met with some resistance from the costuming department. Whatever the qualms, who could ever doubt her?
She only wears it momentarily. Maybe for a mere scene. Is it too frivolous? Certainly, but as she walks through the chambers inspecting the troops, looking as smart as she ever has, she’s totally inimitable. In that moment, she feels like one of the greatest cinematic royals hands down. Images are powerful. We know that.
It has little to do with policy or even action. All these things come later and that’s why we read our history books. No, here in The Scarlet Empress it’s about posture and presence and all those intangibles making the greats great and all the others merely peons and subsidiaries in the game of life.
Amid the clamoring bells and rapid montage, as she charges up the steps triumphant, flanked by her newfound army, Von Sternberg aids in The Scarlett Empress’s ascension to the epoch and with it the ascension of Marlene Dietrich as a star. It takes someone with true magnetism to fill up such a role promising so much, and she handles it with her usual aplomb. You can’t well forget her. She won’t let you. She embodies the Scarlet Empress. She is Marlene The Great.