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Josef von Sternberg
Charles K. French
Young Princess Sophia of Germany is taken to Russia to marry the half-wit Grand Duke Peter, son of the Empress. The domineering Empress hopes to improve the royal blood line. Sophia doesn't like her husband, but she likes Russia, and is very fond of Russian soldiers. She dutifully produces a son -- of questionable fatherhood, but no one seems to mind that. After the old empress dies, Sophia engineers a coup d'etat with the aid of the military, does away with Peter, and becomes Catherine the Great. Written by
John Oswalt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This picture is absolutely one of the oddest damn things ever to come out of the old Hollywood studio system. Von Sternberg himself called it "a relentless exercise in pure style" and he wasn't kidding. Where to begin? For starters, it marks the apex of Sternberg's worship of Marlene Dietrich (worship is hardly too strong a word; it might not be strong enough). His justly famous expressionistic lighting, brilliantly shot by Bert Glennon, dazzles the eye throughout. During the wedding ceremony, for instance, the whole scene is lit by what must be 10,000 candles and is shot through a variety of diffusion materials; in one shot Dietrich's face can hardly be more than a foot from the camera lens but there is a candle between them, and fabric as well, making her face waver and melt into the sensuous texture. This scene is largely silent, and the movie as a whole, though made in 1934, is often silent with music only. Rubinstein's "Kammenoi-Ostrow" arranged for chorus and orchestra plays through the whole wedding scene while Sam Jaffe, a wonderful and versatile actor, plays the insane Grand Duke Peter like Harpo Marx on bad acid. The dialogue throughout is just plain weird, and the mise-en-scene far weirder. Sternberg has created an entire fictitious style for this movie that might be called Russian Gothic. The buildings in no way resemble the airy rococo palaces where the real Empress Elisavieta Petrovna spent her time; rather we are given a nightmarish phantasmagoria of wooden architecture with railings and balustrades carved into the shape of peasants in attitudes of great suffering, and vast doors which armies of ladies-in-waiting struggle to open and close. The aftermath of a brutal feast is portrayed with a skeletal tureen stand presiding over the indescribable flotsam and jetsam. Louise Dresser is a hoot as Empress Elizabeth, never mind the accent; and I also like John Lodge, although I didn't at first; the aplomb with which he delivers his outrageous dialogue finally won me over. Please ignore all the stupid stories about Catherine the Great and horses that you may have heard; there isn't an ounce of evidence for any of them. Instead relish the opening of this gloriously crazy movie: Edward van Sloan, in his best "Dracula/Frankenstein" mode, reading to the little girl Catherine about Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, as we dissolve to fantastic scenes of barbaric torture, culminating in a shot of some peasant being used as the clapper of a bell, which dissolves to the sweet young adult Catherine of some years later on a swing. In the 18th century, swings were considered highly erotic, and Sternberg misses none of this. She is called away by a servant, and runs breathlessly into the parlor where her parents are receiving the Russian envoys. Her actions are literally choreographed to the music as she bobs and weaves around the room, kissing hands and saluting her elders. This is pure cinema, and absolutely nuts, but glorious. Take a good strong snort of whatever your favorite mind-expander may be (a dry red wine with a shot of Stolichnaya under it is my recommendation in this case) and blast your brain with a truly strange movie made by real artists.
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