Bright Lights Film Journal

Falling in love again

Recently I re-watched Josef Von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) and found myself again surprised by the sickly gushy tasteless humor of the piece; had forgotten most of the film’s plot as well, despite having seen it twice before. In a way, this is really symptomatic of my experience with all the Sternberg/Dietrich films I’ve seen, Blonde Venus (1932), Morocco (1930), The Devil is a Woman (1935), with the exception of their first effort together, The Blue Angel (1930), in which Dietrich’s sardonic trashy performance was, memorably, not quite matched by Emil Jannings, who didn’t strike me as being half passionate enough as the stuffed shirt who ruins himself for the sake of Lola Lola. By comparison to the other films The Blue Angel seems a relatively straightforward, sensible piece of craftsmanship; the Dietrich of this movie is slightly slumped and has clearly visible cellulite, nothing like the well posed, brilliantly lit, self-mocking glamorized mannequin she became in Hollywood. The rest of the films of their partnership are all jumbled in my head, a hot-house blur of gilding, shadows and projectile couture. With each movie Sternberg seems to have absorbed himself more and more in the process of filling up as much space around Dietrich with foofy junk as he could. Their movies’ silly melodramatic plots, good girls forced to go bad who pay dearly for it in the process, are engulfed and transcended by the extraordinarily relentless business of the mise en scene. The Scarlet Empress, allegedly the story of how Russian Empress Catherine The Great got to be great, is so immersed in giant chunky sets (huge thick doorways that go up out of frame and require ten court lackeys to push them open); stares with so many grotesque gargoylize gew-gaws; Dietrich is smothered in so many furs and feathers, caught behind so many veils, set like a great jewel among so many glimmering, gleaming, tinkly objects that just about any other actress lacking her humor and toughness would have been buried alive beneath the garishness never to be seen again. She strides through The Scarlet Empress with a kind of whimsical blitheness, reaching the other side of its great set pieces still triumphantly herself, beneath all the hats, gowns, and even those drawn on eyebrows. The plot, which tells how young Catherine was sold in an arranged marriage to a grotesque grinning mentally deficient Russian nobleman who hates her (played with memorable queasiness by Sam Jaffe), mostly seems to be a way of dramatizing what Sternberg thought of Dietrich’s looks, an epic farce about her star essence. This is why what stands out in memory are the muffs and gloves, the ringlets of Dietrich’s hair or Dietrich entombed in a ludicrous puffy white dress being pushed on a swing hysterically by numerous attendants, and on and on. The biggest criticism of the film is that it takes nearly an hour or so for Dietrich to shrug off the horrible wide-eyed innocent girl routine that really grates on the nerves; at last she seduces a soldier so she can produce the requisite male heir, establishes herself at court and turns into the smirking, knowing Dietrich persona that makes any movie worth watching. Dietrich’s acting is rather like her singing, it’s not really very good, but it is great. In one moment that makes the whole film worth seeing, Dietrich’s rival for her husband’s affections threatens her with death when her protector, the matronly Empress who bought her to make babies with her weird son, dies. Dietrich says nothing, merely looks the rival up and down with an ironically appraising smile and exits the room with incredulous humor. Surely the meaning of gestures like these, which Dietrich exudes with artful lightness, are what fueled Sternberg’s fascinating cinematic overkill and gave his films the overripeness that made them such originals.

Yet something more than mere camp is going on in a movie like The Scarlet Empress, though I’m not really sure what. I think maybe it has something to do with the tension between how Dietrich comes across and the very private erotic inferno Sternberg erected around her image. It’s as if every shot were the first teasing picture in a pornographic series, the image of a lace garter pulled taut against a creamy thigh meant to enhance the audience’s supposed desire to touch that flesh. The funny thing is that Sternberg’s carefully dressed and lit arrangements have a kind of hysteria to them, an emphatic denial, that now comes across like homosexual humor (the way a movie like Faster Pussycat Kill, Kill does). As I said, I think this is because there is such a clear and obvious difference between the Dietrich the audience sees and enjoys and the one Sternberg tried to put on the screen, hence his finding it necessary to make every element of her surroundings externalize what he thought of as Dietrich’s true inner qualities. The effect is slightly embarrassing, disturbing, and hypnotic all at once. At one point in The Scarlet Empress Dietrich is shown sleeping behind some sort of mesh that drapes down from her bed’s canopy. Sternberg cuts very close so that the black reticulate design of the mesh creates a huge grid coming between the audience and Dietrich’s bright soft face, you always feel like you’re going to have to shove things aside to get at the woman, as well as the story, which can never be fully pinned down. Dietrich’s character loves and betrays, loves by betraying, which is echoed in the hellish lushness of Sternberg’s movie’s artistic design. Or put another way Dietrich is a failed attempt on Sternberg’s part to create Galatea not out of stone but another woman. What he’s trying to do is turn his woman into stone so she’ll be eternally his, only the plots keep shattering the attempts dramatizing the paranoia. The woman the audience sees, though, is a very different type altogether. Not a fallen tart goddess, but a practical down to brown earth gal. Dietrich herself seems to hover casually outside her part, ironically playing it up; seems to be eternally cocking one of her thin painted eyebrows, as if to say, “Are you sure Josef? Really?” One can almost feel her shrug carelessly as she gives in to his dumb ornate little demands, wrapping her body in sheer fabric and saying, “All right sugar, you’re wish is my command.”

I can’t think of any other film director who gives quite the kind of weird satisfaction of bejeweled tastelessness that one gets from a Sternberg/Dietrich film. Orson Welles doesn’t really seem in the same league. Though a film like Citizen Kane had incredibly busy
theatrical sets, they seemed to be meant to dramatically underscore the situations in at least a partially rational way, despite their excess, while it strikes me that Sternberg was really just trying to junktify Dietrich’s space. One director who is rather in the same realm, I think, is Ken Russell. In films like The Devils, perhaps especially Women in Love, he seems to have slugged off the cliché story-lines of Sternberg and totally liberated the decadent hysteria which had just about burst the seams of The Scarlet Empress; indeed, the characters seem to be covered in the debris of Sternberg’s obsessive sensual aesthetic mania (surely too this has something to do with all equine imagery that gallops wickedly through out the entire film). Both Russell and Sternberg make you cringe and admire simultaneously. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on, but there is something so fascinating that I keep having to go back to these movies to taste their funky flavor again and again.