[Warning, general, but not specific, spoilers ahead. This is history, though. Not very accurate history, but history.]
Sofia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich), an aristocratic ingénue, is manipulated into marrying the Grand Duke of Russia (Sam Jaffe), a madman beholden to his dictatorial mother, Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser). In Sofia the Empress sees only a vessel to serve Russian civilisation and culture. She forces Sofia to throw away her past life, and take on Russian ways. She changes Sofia’s name to the Russian ‘Catherine’, converts her to the Russian Orthodox Church, and commands her to bear a Russian son. But from her ruin she will become Catherine the Great.
From its first scenes the film luxuriates in the macabre and themes of lost innocence. As a child Sofia (Maria Riva) is read Russia’s bloody history as a bedtime tale. Cut to a rapid montage of governmental carnage. Smash cut to a now adult Sofia on a garden swing, kicking into the camera.
The film is a kind of coming-of-age story. The aforesaid opening scenes show how sheltered Sofia is. Violence exists, and she knows of it, but it does pierce her ignorant innocence. As an adult she remains a child, taking pleasure in childish things, the swing, for instance. Her ignorance of the world hides her from cruelty. As her life crawls forward her Romantic cataracts peel off. She sees and suffers the humanity’s cruelties at the Russian court’s hands.
Her lack of agency in the film’s first half emphasises that she has not yet come of age, that she is still a caterpillar waiting to transform. In an early shot men in the foreground arrange her marriage, and emigration to Russia, while she stands silently in the mid-ground between them. The men speak over her, literally and metaphorically, as they define her future. The Count Alexei assures her the Grand Duke embodies all the princely virtues. He lies. Sam Jaffe plays the Grand Duke as a selfish, violent little man with Renfield’s madness glistening in his eyes and teeth. By his lie, Alexei robs Sofia even of her choice to look forward to or dread her fate, because she does not know what awaits her. Empress Elizabeth prevents her from retaining her old identity. She replaces Sofia’s name, religion and nationality. She even hijacks Sofia’s sexual agency, decreeing that Sofia’s body is not for herself, but for bearing a male heir to the throne.
Fitting then, that Sofia reclaiming her sexual agency should symbiotically tie with her taking power, both narratively and thematically. Count Alexei forces her first sexual experience upon her, a kiss while they travel to Russia. This is not her choice. As the film progresses, however, the power balance in their affair shifts more and more to her side, and her pool of sexual partners widens. So assured of her sexuality does she grow, that she borders on proto-dominatrix by the end, playing with a riding crop as she speaks down to Alexei. Her crucible from childhood to adulthood is in large part a belated sexual awakening.
While Marlene Dietrich’s acting is superb, her face especially suits her role. She does not look old, of course, but she does look mature. Her face does not match the dewy-eyed, gawping-mouthed ingénue she plays at the beginning of the film. This discordance makes the viewer feel her innocence is unnatural; it does not fit her. By the film’s end Sofia/Catherine the Great has grown into Dietrich’s face, the face of an assured, seductive, powerful adult.
Visually the film drips a Continental, Gothic style. None of the characters seem to notice the grotesque, sometimes satanic, statues manning the halls and erupting from the architecture. The chairs of the Russian court, too, have grotesques fashioned into them, emphasising the odiousness of the court. Grand Duke Peter could blend right in with these statues.
Sternberg’s direction forces the viewer to recognise that despite the film’s gothic beauty, Sofia does not view it so. Take the wedding scene. Another director might have directed this scene to evoke a beautiful solemnness. The Russian Orthodox rituals, the fire light, the low chanting, all could be un-ironically poetic. But, in story, the ceremony will shackle Sofia to a grinning madman. Sternberg disconcerts the viewer. He packs the scene too full of props and actors. The candles flicker too erratically. In what might have been calm close-ups of Sofia’s face, a censer swings in and out of frame, in and out of her face.
There are about two scenes in the film which forgo Foley work, accompanying the visuals with only music. Here the film plays like a silent film. In another film I might call this laziness, but here it adds to the film’s unreality. The characters act, but in terms of sound their actions do not connect with the world.
The only negative thing I can say is a nit-pick. The title-cards are for the most part superfluous. Mainly they exposit plot-info that the viewer rarely needs to know. Occasionally, and most annoyingly, they literally spell out what the previous scene implied, as if the audience needed a study guide.
The Scarlet Empress is an underrated, underseen film worth watching. As an expressionistic, sensual 1930s historical drama it is worth a watch as a curio alone.