THE SCARLET EMPRESS (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

Set to the music of Tchaikovsky, The Scarlet Empress dazzles with its opulence and the density of its German Expressionism, what Josef von Sternberg, its director, would himself describe as an excess of style. It is based on the diaries of Germany’s Princess Sofia Frederika (Marlene Dietrich, exquisite), who marries Russia’s Grand Duke Pyotr (Sam Jaffe, parodying Harpo Marx), an imbecile, whose mother, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, instructs her upon her arrival that her first child has to be a boy: “There must be no more women on the throne”—a not-so-motherly allusion to the Empress’s son’s indefinite gender. (When after a week’s marriage Pyotr informs his mother he hates his wife, the Empress addresses him as Idiot; later, she reminds the name-changed Catherine it’s her job to “make a man” of the “half-wit” Pyotr.) The marriage sets the young Grand Duchess on the course of becoming, by coup, Empress Catherine II—Catherine the Great.
     The film is funny. Empress Elizabeth Petrovna couldn’t sound more American—or more ridiculously imperious, as when she curtly dismisses her daughter-in-law, explaining, “I have a war going on!” Certainly Sternberg is toying with us when a stable horse’s whinny interrupts a sexual overture made to Catherine by Count Aleksei, the Empress’s own lover; legend has it Catherine died having sex with a horse.
     However, the film, luxuriantly beautiful in black and white, achieves the gorgeous enchantment of a fairy tale in the passage where Catherine is detained by a guard, with whom she makes love, at night in the woods adjacent to the royal castle.
     At the end, after Catherine triumphantly gallops into the castle, her eye-popping and head-jerks transform her into an image of the deposed Pyotr: an encapsulation of the idea that power itself generates idiocy.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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