Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Review: The Scarlet Empress (1934 Film)

[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. 


  1. “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Is woman ever a flower? Bud, silent, Bloom, beautiful, Fruit, then Wither, silent again, is that all? If we dive into the past, women are as gifted in politic as men. If we talk about such story, it fits for all the powerful women. A girl is all innocent and pure, but is forced into an unhappy marriage, learns very quickly and becomes artful, skilful, manipulates to the throne and writes her name upon history. This model is so universally true, we stop when we know she has shaken the history, but it is what has performed after that point has made herself into such place. We then must focus on her sexuality, her artfulness, everything that is unconventional for femininity, that she is a femme fatale. Stop! Stop! Woman’s story are as brilliant as men, but they are all named, to be called ‘She-Wolf’, with variations across language, culture, that she is not normal when men have done the same, or worse.
    She-Wolf, and The Real White Queen and Her Rivals, two BBC documentaries, explore the history of women in a political environment. From 1102 to 1167, we have Empress Matilda, her retract in a white cape against the snow is as courage as she is able to step back to the land England to declares that throne belongs to her! Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 to 1204), becomes the first Queen of France, who has sought an annulment of her marriage… but she gets what she wants and becomes the Queen of England, and later Queen Dowager, and she personally negotiates her son’s ransom in Germany. Then Isabella of France (1295 to 1358), Margaret of Anjou (1430 to 1482), Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby (1443 to 1509), Mary I of England (1516 to 1558), Elizabeth I of England (1533 to 1603). If we go to China, there is always Wu Zetian (624 to 705). After so many brilliant women, finally comes our Catherine the Great (1729 to 1796). Sexual power is not essential for a powerful woman, and emphasis on women’s cruelty and ties such awakening to her sexual liberation…
    But how different can we tell this story as not a woman’s story but women’s story? Let take a look into the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). In fighting against Miss Brodie, Sandy has become what Miss Brodie always wishes her students to become. Elizabeth of Russia (1709 to 1762), in trying to control Catherine, has become the model that Cather needs to become. She has chosen perhaps carefully, a girl is suitable in position, but not too rich, thus not too powerful, away from the centre, easy to control, but she has ‘unfortunately’ given Catherine the opportunity to exercise her talents, and from the best tutor Elizabeth herself. This girl, little Sofia/Sophie who complains in her letter that her life so far has been uneventful, somehow finds a perfect place for herself. How many women who also possess such political mind fails to find the stage to exercise her talent?

  2. With ‘The Scarlet Empress”, “Bloody Mary”, “She-Wolf of France”, “Black Widow”, “Femme Fatale”, “Lady Macbeth”… or we must have “Virgin Queen”… If it is to be a coming of age story then, my complaint lies in such universality of losing innocence and gaining power, both political and sexual, reduces each of these women’s individuality, how she might run the country differently, what is unique about her… She both emerges and loses into the myth of ‘powerful women’.
    But is that all? No, there is so much more for this myth of cruel women, more like cruel Russian. An innocent Prussian princess Sophie is transformed to be a cruel powerful Russian Catherine in Russian politics. The terror of such ‘myth’, of such ‘Scarlet Empress’, of such red, bloody political message directs itself Communist, Socialist, Soviet Union, Stalinism… Lenin died of a stroke in 1924, and Stalin comes to power (why should we not make such a film, that an innocent boy becomes Stalin to be in the history of ‘most powerful men’…). We have this film The Scarlet Empress at 1934, directing directly towards Russia. Suddenly this story is not just about women, but it is a political story about men’s political struggle with the unfortunate implication about women… What should I do with this narrative now? Catherine becomes obscurer under so many layers, and becomes a symbol, irretraceable.
    That is a tragic for a powerful woman.

    1. While the woman-who-is-empowered-through-cruelty trope may be copious in culture, I do not believe it is without worth. Yes, when it is one of the few narratives told of politically powerful woman, it comments badly on how our culture sees politically powerful women. However, this film does not paint Catherine as that kind of woman. It does tie her power to her sexuality, which is another trope which would be valid were it not applied to near every powerful female.

      You bring up the myth of her cruelty and how it must be tied to Soviet politics. If so, not in the way you imply. If the coup in Catherine's time is analogous to the Revolution, then the film paints it triumphantly. Catherine has overthrown a foolish tsar and instates herself as an 'enlightened despot'.