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Old 08-11-2009, 04:25 PM
Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

It was amazing how much this film reminded me of Saul Dibb's recent period piece, "The Duchess," starring Keira Knightley. Both films feature the sudden rise in privilege of a young woman who is destine to become a leader. Both films also had a drawback to them in that they are very broad overviews of their subjects' lives, but not enough to hurt the films' effectiveness.

"The Scarlet Empress" tells the story of Princess Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) of Germany. One day, her family receives a letter from Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Louise Dresser) of Russia stating that she wants Sophia to come to Russia and marry the Grand Duke, Peter (Sam Jaffe). An emissary from the Empress, Count Alexei (John Lodge), arrives to escort Sophia and her mother to the Empress.

After a very long journey, they arrive and Sophia is immediately shown to the Empress, who promptly changes her name to Catherine ("a good Russian name" as she calls it). Sophia's one desire after the long trip is to see the Grand Duke, who Alexei had described as being quite handsome, but to Sophia's great disappointment, he turns out to be quite different when she realizes that the Grand Duke is a "half-wit." This leads to a very troubling relationship between the two, especially with her main duty being to produce an heir to the throne.

Like "The Duchess," the main reason to see this film is that it is a beautiful spectacle. Josef von Sternberg, the director, spared no expense in lavishing every frame with gorgeous costumes and some of the strangest sets I've seen since Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" (the original version from 1946). In the Empress's palace, there are bizarre statues adorning every room, in a very creepy Gothic style that sets an eerie atmosphere for the remainder of the film.

The filmmakers made an interesting decision to not have the actors put on accents for their roles despite almost all of the characters being from Germany and Russia. Dietrich, who was actually from Germany, even managed to hide her accent. However, like the recent Bryan Singer film "Valkyrie," this never bothered me that much. In fact, it probably would have been more troublesome to get through some bad, phony accents rather than just let everyone speak normally. This only caused one problem that somewhat bothered me which was that Louise Dresser's performance came off as a little unauthentic in the first half of the film due to her American accent (she was born in Indiana).

As I mentioned earlier, this film is a very broad telling of Catherine's rise to power, which would eventually put her on the throne as Catherine the Great (this is not a spoiler because even if you didn't know this from history, the film makes a point of telling you throughout its entirety). The film spends a long time just getting Sophia to the Empress's palace, deals with the marriage, and then decides to skip a part of her life. How much is skipped, I have no idea, but we can tell that a lot of time must have passed because Catherine is much different when we see her next.

Catherine goes from being the new girl, shy and unfamiliar with Russian ways, to being a strong woman, who suddenly knows much about Russia and how to get what she wants. The rest of the film briefly deals with the death of the Empress, the rise of Peter the Great, and his eventual dethronement. All in all, it feels a little rushed. I would have liked more detail on the events leading up to this point as I am not all that familiar with Russian history.

It also felt like the film ended much too soon. It runs a brisk 104 minutes and ends as soon as Catherine takes over the throne. It would have been nice to see what she did when she finally did seize power, how she changed things for the better (if she actually did that is), because, again, I am unfamiliar with Russian history and it would have been interesting to learn a little more about her character at this point since the film took all this time telling us about how she got here.

The main reason that the details were left out, as I have read in a few places, is that von Sternberg apparently meant for this film to be an exhibition for Marlene Dietrich, which I find is a strange reason to skimp on the story. The story could have been flushed out more, still making this an exhibition for Dietrich, making it more than a general overview of one important part of her life.

Another reason that has been suggested by several others is that the film is an exhibition of the bizarre production design. However, as I have already mentioned, the production design is the main reason to see the film. That's not saying that the story is bad, it manages to tell this part of Sophia's/Catherine's life decently, it just could have used more details and gone farther than it did. The production design, mixed with a creepy performance by Sam Jaffe as Peter, always with his eyes wide open and a strange grin on his face, as well as some unforgettable images, like Catherine plus several soldiers riding up the stairs and bursting into the throne room on their horses, make this a compelling enough film to recommend. 3/4 stars.
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