Saturday, August 4, 2012

Short Take: The Scarlet Empress

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Marlene Dietrich stars in The Scarlet Empress, director Josef von Sternberg's 1934 film about the rise of Russia's Catherine the Great. It's one of the best Hollywood films of the 1930s, and one of the most energetic costume dramas ever made. The film begins with the young Catherine, a Prussian princess who leaves her native court for an arranged marriage to Russia's halfwit future emperor Peter III (Sam Jaffe). It ends years later with Peter's murder and Catherine's ascension to the throne. Along the way Catherine grows from a sheltered naïf to a canny, ruthless leader. She comes to see love as sentimental, and sex as one of the most effective weapons of all. Von Sternberg is on fire with telling the story visually. The chiaroscuro lighting, along with the lavishly detailed costumes and sets, are used to brilliant expressionistic effect. He builds much of the drama through visual and often sexually tinged tropes. And he is in love with movement: the staging and camerawork are superbly choreographed and almost always active. Von Sternberg wants the viewer to feel the story as well as watch it, and he succeeds marvelously well. Marie Dressler, who plays the uncouth Russian empress Elizabeth Petrovna, is the film's standout performer. The terrific production crew included cinematographer Bert Glennon, costume designer Travis Banton, and art director Hans Dreier. The screenplay is credited to Manuel Komroff.

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