Monday, June 12, 2006
The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)
Even though it's about as Russian as Casablanca, Josef von Sternberg's masterful The Scarlet Empress eschews plot and dialogue for pure visual splendor. If the term "poetry" can be applied to visual images as well as to the written word, von Sternberg's film would most definitely warrant the label.
Using the story of German princess Sophia's transformation into Catherine the Great (von Sternberg muse Marlene Dietrich) of Russia as a starting off point, von Sternberg uses light, shade, and gothic imagery to convey the decadence and decay of Russia and Catherine's morality as her reign continues. All of these elements tensely build up the drama of the Russian Empire mostly without the aid of dialogue or intertitles. Brilliantly edited torture sequences bookend the story, once coming out of young Sophia's book and then happening for real under her creepily conniving husband, Peter (Sam Jaffe). The grandly extravagant and horrific set design trap every character in myth and romanticism, but these elements do not pierce the granite outsides of Catherine, Peter, or the Empress before them (a darkly comic Louise Dresser). Von Sternberg orchestrates not only the mise-en-scene to fit his vision but wrote and conducted the perfectly pompous music as well.
The performances, especially by Dietrich as naive princess and iron-fisted empress, are solid if the dialogue seems fit for a different setting (perhaps a light gangster flick). The film is less a history lesson than a magnificent exercise in style. To wit, an amazingly captured sequence featuring a gold pendant from one of Catherine's suitors encapsulates the physical rise and moral fall of the Scarlet Empress: Catherine tosses it out of a window onto a tree, and it falls from branch to branch, again and again, edited into a free-flowing cascade of beautiful collapse.