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With: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dressler, C. Aubrey Smith, Gavin Gordon, Olive Tell, Ruthelma Stevens, Erville Alderson, Davison Clark, Phillip Sleeman, Marie Wells, Hans von Twardowski, Gerald Fielding
Written by: Manual Komroff, based on the diary of Catherine H.
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 104
Date: 05/09/1934

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Vienna-born and New York-raised Josef von Sternberg relocated toHollywood with star Marlene Dietrich after the success of their firstfilm together, the German-language The Blue Angel (which was alsofilmed in an inferior English-language version). The unbeatable teammade six more films in Hollywood including Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), but The Scarlet Empress is considered theirmasterpiece, their "relentless excursion into style," in the words ofthe man himself. Sternberg specialized in ornate, studio-boundrenderings, placing the striking Dietrich in the center of it all.

Dietrich plays Catherine the Great, beginning the film as a young na�ve woman engaged to the "royal idiot" Peter (Sam Jaffe with a Joker-like grin) but really in love with Peter's right-hand man Count Alexei (John Lodge). During the wedding ceremony, Sternberg fills the frame with candles, interspersed with close-ups of both Deitrich and Lodge, but never together. The effect makes the lovers seem lost among the candles, unable to even look in one another's true direction. Catherine soon learns where her power lies and learns how to use it, taking advantage of her husband's simple-mindedness and sexually seducing members of the army to take her side against his. Characters sit around in great dining halls, and Sternberg fills the frame with huge, grotesque statues and furniture. When the bittersweet ending comes, we're not sure if Dietrich has experienced victory or defeat. It's a complex, poetic, fantastical, and truly great movie.

DVD Details:The Criterion Collection released this great film on DVD in 2001 in a beautiful new transfer. Extras include a 20-minute BBC documentary, "The World of Josef von Sternberg," stills and lobby cards, optional English subtitles, and, in the liner notes, a tribute to Sternberg by the great underground filmmaker Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures) and an essay by critic Robin Wood.

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