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...
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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>
The best directors are adaptable, able to turn their talents to the needs of story and stars. On the other hand, a stylistic individualist such as Joseph "von" Sternberg may be excellent at what they do, but completely inflexible and as such their work tends to be uneven. However, although Sternberg was unable to bend his style to suit the material, there is always the chance that sooner or later the material would come along to suit his style. Enter The Scarlet Empress.
It may be based on a true story, but The Scarlet Empress makes only fleeting contact with reality. It is a macabre, nightmarish fairytale imagining of history. As such Sternberg can go all out with his bizarre stylisation and disregard for convention. All those things which made a mess of his other pictures – the odd angles, the distracting foreground clutter, the hammy acting – they all fit in here. Sternberg was never one to elucidate plot or draw out emotional depth, and The Scarlet Empress is the one picture where he doesn't really need to.
In this light, we can actually take time to appreciate the excesses of Sternberg's technique. The early scenes in Germany are comparatively light and airy. When Count Alexei arrives he introduces a swathe of blackness. From this point on Sternberg literally darkens the picture, not just from scene to scene but from moment to moment, for example when Alexei's cloak envelops Marlene as he kisses her. The Russian palace is a surreal creation, more like a bejewelled cave than a building. We can see the fine craftsmanship of Hans Dreier, but he was doubtless directed fairly thoroughly by Sternberg himself. It's shot and lit in such a way that it appears to have no limits, its edges lost in shadow. And as for Sternberg's close-ups! They are strange, wonderful, glittering portraits, worthy of the painted icons that are such a part of Russian culture. The only pity is that Sternberg treats his cast as merely part of the mechanical process. To him, a good actor like Sam Jaffe is simply there to be a grotesque, little different to the stone ones adorning every set.
The exception is Marlene. Ms Dietrich shimmers under Sternberg's lens. Not only does she stand out more here than any other picture, like a shimmering jewel amid the shadows, this also happens to be her very finest performance. When we first meet her, she is a world away from her familiar screen persona, playing the teenage Catherine as timid, naïve and frail. As the plot progresses she transforms into the smart and confident seductress, and finally emerges as the charismatic empress-in-waiting, and this at last is the Marlene we all know. Her development, though radical, is absolutely believable, and throughout her acting is utterly flawless.
And then, there is the music. The Scarlet Empress is an almost constantly musical picture, with much of the action wordlessly choreographed to a pounding background score. It is a truly symphonic work, what Michael Powell referred to as a "composed film". And it is reminiscent of Russian music purely in its tone – it has that same cruel, stark quality of Mussorgsky and Prokofiev; music from a culture who get a lot of ice and not much daylight. And yet the composer whose work is most prominently used in The Scarlet Empress is Tchaikovsky, by and large a confectioner of nice but plain melodic pieces. His music fits though, especially the Slavic March, and in any case Tchaikovsky has a lot in common with Sternberg – pretty but lacking in depth. And Tchaikovsky still had his masterpieces.
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