Director Josef von Sternberg’s second to last picture with partner-in-crime Marlene Dietrich doesn’t waste any time laying it all out on the table. Preempting Citizen Kane by seven years and (and several orders of lip-smacking stylistic magnitude), the film systematically announces its outré structures for us, essentially “teaching” audiences how to view it, with one fell, frenzied maelstrom of uninhibited style. A sleeping child, Princess Sophia of Germany, experiences a view-askew omen of her future destiny and power, but it is the film that asserts itself onto her – and us – in a baroque, tangled edifice of dissolves and swivels of imagery as the girls’ future is compressed into an abstract slurry of imagery, a swamp of paranoia. Sophia’s doll, passive and innocent, cracks into the suggestive malice of an iron maiden, a very different kind of toy, loosening the cinematic channels toward a montage that concludes with a man whipping back and forth in a frustrated ricochet tied to the rope within the bulbous enormity of a bell, an object interrupted by a now adult Princess Sophia undulating on a swing-set. Her suggestive hoopskirt replaces the circular bell in the frame as a new kind of weapon, or, at least, it will mushroom into a weapon over the course of the film. But already von Sternberg has weaponized her body, and the camera, into an agitated fury as a premonition of future pain and punishment dissolves into, essentially, a shot of this woman’s loins in full-tilt, implicitly foretelling her control over the pain ushered out later on.
No mere perceptual overload though, The Scarlet Empress is also an experiment in the threshold of style as substance and an audience’s willingness to unshackle themselves from Hollywood’s dominant mode of illusory realism. The introduction is insinuating, gloriously so, but also a repudiation, even a reprimanding, of the starch-suit sobriety with which cinema approaches history. Sure, the story will tackle Sophia’s rise to power as Catherine the Great once she, played by Marlene Dietrich as an adult, is conscripted to marry a noble in Russia, but von Sternberg’s style warps the parade of history into a kind of agitated, farcical entropy. A cabinet of curiosities with the energy of a demented fairground carnival but the tone of requiem, von Sternberg maximizes the possibility of every frame, floating, rampaging, and gyrating through history rather than walking through it. Ultimately, the whirlwind drops us right into the throngs of cinema at its most untrammeled.
Audiences in 1934 were bamboozled and reacted unceremoniously to the picture, which perverts everything they knew and loved about the allusive romanticism of the previous von Sternberg and Dietrich pairings. Witnessing a hurricane of philharmonic style, audiences saw a form with no substance, mistakenly assuming that the two can ever be uncoupled. This is because audiences then, and now, had been swooned for years (especially with the rise of the sound era) on the unspoken (at the time) rule that “serious” cinema was a cinema of “content” – story, character, illusory realism – a de facto state of matter that von Sternberg, in a bout of frustration and egotistical hedonism, thoroughly corrodes in The Scarlet Empress.
With an ambivalent idea of the cinema of realism, von Sternberg – prompting the end of a short-lived run of indomitable box office successes – stopped playing by Hollywood’s rules. Much like Orson Welles (who adored von Sternberg and must have watched this film’s famous wedding scene salivating with Pavlovian intoxication), von Sternberg threw out the lie of objectivity in cinema and instead slathered the film in a personal style that uprooted the Hollywood edict of invisible style. In doing so, it also unmoored the human mind, asking it to engage with cinema as a wellspring of artifice and a lexicon for expressionistic, near-surrealistic passion. Faced with a maddening film, audiences lost their mind, confronting the intentionally ridiculous with ridicule and purging the film from the Mt. Olympus of respectable cinema and into the fell ghetto of “camp”.
A word (camp) that has largely ushered in a new epoch of appreciation for the film many decades after its demise. Certainly, the film seems frivolous, even dares us to locate its frivolous center. But it also massages – or throttles – the carefree into the fanatical, the neurotic, and the extremely anxious. It stimulates a cracked-lens whirlpool of imagery that circumscribes, chokes, strangles, and threatens the passive woman at its center, drowning in the throngs of a patriarchal world, until she clutches the omnipresent bombast of her male counterparts and confiscates the style for herself to summon a foul madness all her own. As the film cascades to its denouement, the thunderstorm of swiveling camera movement and the steamy maw of maximal mise-en-scene that von Sternberg had asserted onto her finally mutate into her personal weapons. Accepting patriarchic status, the allegro avalanche of imagery that had studiously and judiciously confined her suddenly signals her autonomy, the camera her personal army to have the world as she chooses. Throughout, history is dance, the camera prancing and pirouetting over her soul; the film’s back-half is no different, but there’s a new maestro.
Fatally misread for decades not only as a hurricane of camp but an exploitative “evil woman” tall tale, the early goings of The Scarlet Empress undercut this assumption by sublimating Dietrich under a fanatical air of hysteria where the only possible escape path is her adaptation to the libertine brutality of the world around her, even at the expense of her soul. Even more so than the prior, more respected collaborations between Dietrich and her best director, the newly-christened Catherine’s toxic uprising late on is depicted as the logical, and importantly the only, point of egress for a woman abused by a masculine, material world with its fingers around her neck. No study in venomous, carnal womanhood, The Scarlet Empress instead preempts Catherine’s rise to power by counterpoising it to an elephantine preamble that estranges her passive figure from the world hellishly bent on keeping her that way.
The obvious linchpin is the toxic abyss of her wedding to Peter (Sam Jaffe), with malevolent veils croaking the screen and suffusing the progression in a funereal air of a death-caked procession. Candles flicker all around, pitifully pretending to illuminate the darkness but only severing the screen into bits as further installations of the aristocratic edifice of maximal material worth. They, like everything else in the film, choke the screen and drain any hope for an unmediated view of the wedding. The tone is a graveyard promenade or pantomime, the only largo scene in the whole film, as Catherine walks through a crucible of objects in the foreground dissolving her into pieces in the frame, denying her the totality of her body.
Even when she does sit down to be married and the camera finally settles in on an uninterrupted view of her, a cunning little bell slithers into the screen – swung by a man off to the side – pummeling her face visually with a tympanic, circadian rhythm. Baroque glory, in a scene so engorged with imagery that she suffocates on it, begets omnipresent murk, a netherworld of overabundant wealth producing only emptiness. Close-ups invade occasionally in hopes of finally saving us from the omnipotent, omnipresent mise-en-scene that threatens the characters and the viewer in unison. But if the close-ups promise freedom for the characters to enter into their personal worlds and forget the external hell, von Sternberg also shoots the faces so that they’re abstracted, each person now encased in their own individualizing, distancing emotion, as if they exhibit no connection to each other and fail to occupy the same physical space. Catherine wallows in her own world, while Peter grins like The Joker, encased in his own ego. Even the ritual-like pantomime of the ring-donning, depicted in fractured close-up, is abstracted from the rest of the scene, much as the act is disconnected from the humanity of the faces that wear the rings.
Onward from the wedding, the boldface, estranging imagery only mushrooms and bedevils further. After a decadent track across a dinner table with harshly-lit grotesquerie adorned for Catherine’s eating pleasure, the camera arrives at her head seat, and her head space. Her face swallowed by huddled gargoyles jutting out from her chair, the rococo hell coaxes the camera, perhaps in mortal fear, to jut backwards and coast upward into the air away from her, glimpsing the people all around Dietrich in a perfect line as if ghoulish arms extending outward from the gargoyle statues behind her. The spirit of Visconti, a future director in this hyper-materialistic, hyper-melodramatic biome, can be seen waiting in the wings. Except even that wonderful director carved out some space for the characters to wallow in their murk and mire through graceful, motile camera movements that tracked with the characters’ paces, emphasizing some modicum of freedom entirely absent in The Scarlet Empress, an iron maiden of a film.
Throughout, the lighting encases Dietrich in a prison of isolation, and an abstract slurry of disconnected rooms – a dining room, a few hallways – stoke the mind to ingest the overweening, malformed nobility of the narcissistic Russian aristocracy that seems almost Byzantine. Tickling outright hysteria throughout, the film eventually dives into much more maddened headspace when Catherine clues in to the way things are; at one point, she informs us that she now “sees” the Russian aristocracy’s way of life, and she likes. Oh, she likes, or at least she convinces us she does at the behest of the Dowager Empress (Louise Dresser), the only other significant woman in the film and a model of how women in this world have no choice but to best the males at their oppressive, paternalistic game even at the expense of their sanity. From there, Dietrich purrs that she has “weapons far more powerful than any political machine”, and the inter-titles don’t disagree; one wickedly informs us that she added “the Russian army to her list of conquests”.
Released in 1934, von Sternberg must have slipped somehow a twenty to pass this excessively phallic film by the censors, brimming as it is with askew perversion; calling the toxic sexual energy a mere “undercurrent” would bend the definition of “undercurrent” in a remarkably free-wheeling way. It’s more like a torrent of perversion, all the way from when that camera tries to peek under Dietrich’s skirt at the apex of the introductory montage to when a doctor dives under her hoop skirt to do who knows what. Von Sternberg famously called it an “excursion into style” yet that is also a remarkably loose use of the world excursion. Overblown symbols mutate into gloriously warped metaphors, with Dietrich toying with and manhandling toy soldiers in a gross facsimile of her now personal power plays, all while cunningly suggesting von Sternberg’s role behind the camera animating everything himself in a sort of puppet show of the grotesque, a skeezy sojourn on a garishly sleazy stage
A great cinematic parlor trick, and maybe the greatest, The Scarlet Empress is excessively, maybe violently playful, but it is also an example of a dying breed of film in complete control of itself and totally uninhibited in its desire to peer beyond the vestiges of logical character action to achieve its results. Even if it means masochistically sabotaging its reputation in the process. The audiences that adored von Sternberg’s strapped-together, mechanical leviathans wandering helplessly in a nebula of mist-shrouded emptiness (in masterpieces like The Docks of New York) failed to see how unbridled the visual acumen of Bert Glennon’s alternately lacquered and charred chiaroscuro is here. Unlike most films where the style is acquiescent, style here is not some benign cobblestone to actorly performance or human emotion but a malignant, sentient entity that structures the film, with emotion as a submersible erupting outward and spraying its vivacious innards everywhere. The baroque sensibility isn’t a denial of von Sternberg’s mastery but an advancement of it, a shot of cinematic psychosis into the arm of a society bred on static historical cinema that von Sternberg furiously sweeps along the cascading rhythms of style and out of the ghetto of lethargic, stolid petrifaction. The cinema of history is no longer “sour like milk that’s been standing too long”, although that descriptor might also be appended to any of the film’s characters.
Especially Catherine, peering through the brambles of opulence in search of an outgrowth of humanity until she takes her destiny into her own hands in a tantrum of personal agency, arousing herself in a rictus grin of delusional egotism as she rides to the apex of Russian society on a white horse. Her face now a mirror of Peter’s gargoyle-like facial calcification during the wedding, her destiny for greatness has been fulfilled by being perverted beyond its wildest imagination. The earliest glimmers of love between her and Count Alexei, by this point, have been foreclosed in a scene where they confide in one another, she hell-bent on success by this point and erecting herself on a different plane above Alexei in the frame (she stands at a higher level of ground). Love mutated by a culture of hierarchical relationships, the variegated lateral planes in the screen forecloses the possibility of a horizontal relationship with both parties on equal footing (something the blocking corroborates, with characters sequestered away, between material objects and aristocratic bric-a-brac).
Eventually, she rides off in a male uniform, triumphing over the imbecilic Peter who dons a distinctly more feminine garb. She rampages through the film’s material, physical vastness and dimensionality and strikes poses for a world and a camera that never considered her more than a visual object to be molded in the first place. Confined to the knowledge that her only outlet for expression is to turn her objectification into her weapon, she gives in and takes control, possibly at the expense of her quivering, tentative subjectivity and humanity.
With mildness the mildew of the weak, the film itself is an echo of Catherine’s mind, tormented by the need to express itself and trapped by the feeling that only the most outré gestures may pacify the task. The film becomes a mind space absorbed through friction, demanding its own wavelength and daring the audience to coalesce around it, even fracturing their minds in the process (a stylistic dare much the same as the intense calamity Catherine is presented with). A pile on of florid Lubitsch-grafted swooning and elegiac Murnau-esque superimposition all whipped up by an Eisensteinian straw of carnivalesque montage and kaleidoscopic zest, it’s no wonder Welles can be seen lurking in the shadows, before the shadows would swivel around him and carve out permanent room for his face in the Mt. Rushmore of cinema.
With all that, it’s no wonder that The Scarlet Empress is still sometimes lambasted today; the opening premonition of Catherine’s destiny was also a premonition of von Sternberg’s uncoupling from Hollywood reality, an omen of his oncoming fate as a man who was devoured by the edicts of continuity storytelling around him. The historical posturing we expect shattered by expressionist shards that bend and pollute our identification with the characters as historical people, the film envisions them as figurines in a surrealistic, unhinged narrative structure absolved of the scripture of logic. A premonition of Hitchcock and an adjustment of Lang, Sternberg’s cackling live-wire trapeze act balloons into a coil of malevolence and ultimately answers to no one except its own cascade of otherworldly oppressiveness. The most malodorous stench lingering overhead maybe the death of the director and star this film suddenly executed in the middle of their hot-streak, but this death-caked film was almost worth it; rather than melting our hearts, it implodes them.