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The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg) 1934


        The Scarlet Empress is the first film von Sternberg film that I've seen, so I would hardly presume to call it his best work. Nonetheless, the film was immensely accessible to me and surely qualifies as a masterpiece. The opening credits say the film was based on the diaries of Catherine the Great, and the film as a whole gives that impression in a most curious way. Rather than even attempting to give a realistic portrayal of the characters, we get a film populated by grotesque caricatures. The acting is bad, but it seems to be intentionally so. The set design, while apparently historically accurate seems to fixate on the most overbearing aspects of the palace's architecture. Catherine is a prisoner in her own castle, and every aspect of the film seems obsessed with painting the world as filtered through her eyes. Surely, this is one of the great illustrations of the power of mise-en-scene and the subjective power of cinema. As we watch Dietrich go from dainty naf to brutal dominatrix, her opponents are cartoon-like and physically seem to just be manifestations of their egos, and her conquests are simply attractive, virile men with next to no substance. We never get the impression that Dietrich is under anything less than complete directorial control of those around her, and even this adds to the film's palpable feeling of repression. 

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        The filmmaking is invigorating, with some of the images standing out as originals to this day (A human bell clapper and a drill penetrating the eye of a figure on a mural stick out most in my mind). Every scene seems constructed to add to our overall impression of Catherine's repression. When the tone shifts to her liberation, the film, perhaps tellingly, is at its least successful. Still, the biggest impression the film leaves is that it must have come before its time. It's got a great deal of humor in dealing with a subject matter that's not innately funny, and I'm stunned that a film this sexually vital was given the go ahead in the 30's. There's a feminist streak running though this film, and I can't imagine how it was viewed when it originally came out. I certainly am compelled to see more of the director's work after seeing this, and would recommend the film without reservation, if only because I am sure that the film could play was as pure camp as well for those not taken in by the film's dramatic hooks.

**** Masterpiece

October 2001

Jeremy Heilman