Film 30: The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress (1934) dir. Josef von Sternberg. USA.

Von Sternberg (1894-1969) was one of the true Hollywood characters, sometimes a great director, always a great show. He dressed in costumes appropriate to the films he was directing, made his assistants remove their wristwatches because he could hear the ticking, and calmly claimed he did it all himself: direction, photography, lighting, sets, costumes, props, the works. “It takes me a lot of time,” he sighed. Of course he had the usual craft professionals assigned to all of those jobs, but he certainly controlled the look of his films, and in “The Scarlet Empress” he compensates for the lack of a vast canvas by filling a small one to bursting.


When Dietrich is onscreen, however, nothing is too good for her; not only do von Sternberg’s lighting and cinematography make her the center and subject of every scene, but he devises extraordinary moments for as, as when, clad in a fur uniform and cape, with an improbable sable military hat, she mounts a horse and leads a cavalry charge up the grand staircase. “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” she says in “Shanghai Express,” but it only took von Sternberg to make her Marlene Dietrich.

–Roger Ebert

Abigail:  This crazy spectacle of a film is well worth the watching.  Marlene Dietrich practically glows.  This is the first time I have missed color, just because her excessive wardrobe was no doubt brilliant in hue.  She is stuffed into giant costumes among even more giant sets and somehow holds the audience in her eyes.  The plot is incomprehensible – a young German girl is brought to a ridiculous Russian court to help iron out the inbreeding that has made its rulers mad.  She starts as a cowering deer, but quickly grows into her role, and becomes the seductress of the court, eventually taking the crown from her husband, and ruling in his stead.  The tone is incredibly consistent, even where the plot is sparse, and the tongue in cheek humour mixed with amazingly gaudy sets and costumes pitches the film into a sort of orgasmic Fairy Tale Land.   I don’t know if this movie is any good, but I know that Marlene Dietrich is a STAR and Josef von Sternberg helped her look like one.

Forrest:  What a weird and wonderful film.  I don’t know if I mean “wonderful” as in “really good” as much as I mean it as “full of wonders.”  The design of it is stunning.  Von Sternberg builds a palace out of gargoyles and misshapen icons, and peoples it with heartless creatures with beautiful faces.  The story vanished from my mind almost as soon as the film ended, but the images will linger with me for a long time.  It’s the first time I’ve seen Marlene Dietrich in anything, and I now understand why she’s…Marlene Dietrich.  The closeup of her face behind the sheer curtain of her bed is a showstopper — it’s seductive, cold, and archly intelligent.  The same can be said for the film as a whole.

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