Bright Lights Film Journal

Mother Russia! Josef von Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress on Criterion DVD

“Some of the mise-en-scene has a suffocating beauty, as in the bravura marriage sequence where the screen is clogged to the breaking point with images – a strategy that shows to perfection Catherine’s entrapment in a realm where she’s been stripped of her name, her religion, and any romantic ideals she had.”

The failed dreams of 1930s America that attended the great depression also emerged in a soothing, if specious, escape route via the movies. Audiences that saw a problematic present and a doubtful future could at least look to the big screen for exotic, transporting locales, everything from a fog-drenched, monster-plagued London in Dracula (1931) to the sensual jungles of “Indo-China” in Red Dust (1932).

Of course, even audiences desperate for escape had their limits, and judging from its critical and commercial failure at the time, Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) hit those limits and kept on going. It wasn’t until the arrival of camp on the cultural scene of the 1960s that this stylized masterpiece came into its own as one of the cinema’s most dazzling achievements. The camp rubric is fine as far as it goes, but ultimately there’s much more to this perverse bildungsroman.

The sixth of von Sternberg’s seven collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, The Scarlet Empress is a highly unorthodox biopic of Sophia Fredericka, the naif who is brought from the provinces to the Russian court to marry Peter III and produce a male heir. Hints that this is no ordinary history come early in a startling montage of Tsarist Russia. Von Sternberg’s fetishism is in full flower here as he catalogs a shadowy array of blatantly sadomasochistic tableaux: bodies spilling out of iron maidens; nude women being burnt at the stake; a man strapped to a whirling wheel; and the piece de resistance, a bound, upside-down man used as a clapper in a gigantic bell. Typical of the film’s internal resonances, this image is echoed throughout, most powerfully when Sophia, renamed Catherine by the Dowager Empress, rings the bell to show her successful ousting of Peter and appropriation of the Russian throne.

The stylistic extremes in this montage are fleshed out in the architecture of the Russian court. Von Sternberg is not noted for his warmth and empathy in luring audiences to identify with his exotic characters, but contemporary audiences must have been as slack-jawed as Sophia at the sight of 20-foot-high carved doors that take six people to open; giant, gnarled statues that hold a single candle; and bewigged functionaries mincing around in vast, ornate gowns and carrying huge muffs. (Thank art directors Hans Dreier, Peter Ballbusch, and Richard Kollorsz for wonderfully fleshing out von Sternberg’s vision in this regard.)

The film’s bizarrerie extends to the characters. The present empress (Louise Dresser), Peter’s aunt, is a bitchy, rapacious harridan systematically screwing her way through the royal guard. (The film was released just prior to the enforcement of the Hays Code and thus escaped censorship despite a veritable tsunami of erotic images and motifs.) Peter himself (Sam Jaffe) is a grinning imbecile – “the royal half-wit” the empress calls him – who plays with toy soldiers and wants to kill his new wife. Count Alexei (John Lodge) is a sneering stud who courts Catherine while he’s making it with the empress. There are endless secret passageways, multiple amours, and traitors in every corner. Stock Sternberg characters add sardonic color: a thieving chancellor, a sarcastic priest, and a queenly hairdresser who prances up and down the halls in a mysterious state of disgust.

Von Sternberg delights in deflating the pomposities of the court, in the process arguably poking fun of his own atmospheric excesses. In one scene, the empress reaches for her scepter and is inadvertently handed a turkey leg. When he isn’t playing with his soldiers, Peter uses a gigantic hand-drill to poke spy-holes in various walls. This occasions one of the film’s numerous startling images: Catherine looking up dazed as a drill bit twists its way through the eye of the subject of a huge painting. The dialogue adds another dimension of sarcasm. When Catherine objects to Count Alexei’s adulterous moves, he lectures her on the stupidity of morality: “Those ideas are old-fashioned. This is the 18th century!” Von Sternberg also gets mileage out of the legend of Catherine’s strange death in scenes with a sardonically smiling Catherine and her horse.

In spite of its gorgeous insularity, The Scarlet Empress also shows political savvy. Catherine succeeds in deposing Peter by winning over the two forces that have traditionally ruled empires: the church and the army. She secures the church’s loyalty by stripping off her jewels and handing them to the priest for the poor; she captivates the army by flirting with and bedding them, in the tradition of her predecessor.

The Scarlet Empress is a masterpiece of romantic moments, played against grand swelling musical motifs and brilliantly visualized – Catherine holding a gauze net over her face as Count Alexei bends down to kiss her; a breathless encounter with the Count in a haystack, with Catherine repeatedly putting bits of straw in her mouth as mock-protection against his lust; an impromptu rendezvous in a glittering dark forest with a soldier who doesn’t know who she is. Some of the mise-en-scene has a suffocating beauty, as in the bravura marriage sequence where the screen is clogged to the breaking point with images – a strategy that shows to perfection Catherine’s entrapment in a realm where she’s been stripped of her name, her religion, and any romantic ideals she had. There are also quietly evocative moments, such as when Catherine seduces a soldier through a shimmering veil, a combination of the abstract and the sensual that confirms critical views of von Sternberg as the most painterly of directors.

Criterion’s DVD version is hyped on the case as “luminous” and “restored” but does not appear to be either. It’s hard to know where to assign blame – Universal handing Criterion the first print it found, Criterion’s (or Universal’s) ignorance of the existence of a gorgeous 35mm nitrate print at UCLA, a confused restoration team – but blame is in order. The sheer amount of grain (I can live with the occasional jumps and other age-related problems) throughout seriously compromises von Sternberg’s singular vision. (Some viewers will also find the audio disappointing). Criterion’s credibility comes into question when they portray such second-rate transfers as pristine. (I will add that I’ve seen the UCLA print and it is simply stunning; I’ve also seen 16mm prints that were in much better shape than this.)

There are a few intriguing extras, less than one might wish for but more than many discs contain. A gallery of production stills and lobby cards show von Sternberg’s lighting and composition genius in a still-life context. Robin Wood’s provocative feminist reading of the film is included on the printed insert, along with a homage by the late underground filmmaker Jack Smith, whose impressionistic writing style captures much of the lure of The Scarlet Empress. Most informative is a 20-minute BBC documentary, The World of Josef von Sternberg (1967). The director is shown demonstrating his meticulous lighting and camera techniques to a group of suitably reverent, if slightly befuddled students, while interviewer Kevin Brownlow elicits typical von Sternberg insights about everything from actors (“They’re used as marionettes … as bits of color on the canvas … objects”) to his sources of inspiration (painters only, “I have no traceable influences to motion pictures”). There’s also a welcome paean – surprisingly garrulous for von Sternberg – to Dietrich, whose commanding position at the center of The Scarlet Empress accounts for much of its charm: “She was quite a gal!”

Note: For a vastly superior transfer (and cheaper to boot), get the PAL version from Universal UK. Available at this writing (September 2009).