Sunday, February 5, 2012

#415: The Scarlet Empress

1934, TSPDT Rank #299

The third film in my Josef von Sternberg marathon.

The Scarlet Empress is definitely the most bizarre, lavish, insane, beautiful, intense, ridiculous, and masterful period piece I have ever seen. I had heard all this and more about this penultimate collaboration between Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich many times over in the past, but I never believed it could be true until I actually witnessed it for myself. Actually, its glorious madness far exceeded what I had heard. I'm sure Ken Russell must have got quite a bit of his inspiration from this film, as I was reminded of his work in many of the sequences. I don't know a lot about what was going on in Sternberg's personal life at this point, but it seems like his collaboration with Dietrich had reached an overly decadent peak of greatness which could not possibly be topped, and which seems to signal a certain absence of sanity. But sometimes what is lacking in a great artist's sanity is balanced out by the greatness of their work - and that would definitely be the case with this film. Sternberg had obviously mastered the process of making sound pictures since his unsteady direction of The Blue Angel four years earlier, as evidenced by the perfect synthesis of blisteringly wild Russian music, blinding lighting, brilliant camerawork, grotesque and extravagant sets, and performances which are well at home with the lunacy that surrounds them. Marlene Dietrich's performance and overall presence is too sublime to accurately put into words. Her portrayal of Catherine the Great in her transformation from an innocent, naive German princess to the supremely powerful and sexually manipulative empress of Russia is most likely her best performance, and the way Sternberg presents her on the screen made me want nothing less but to worship her like a goddess. That is the power this film has, and I'm sure that I will see more and more in it the more I watch it. In the meantime, believe what has been said over the many years since The Scarlet Empress was released, and then watch it and feel your eyes all but fall out of their sockets when you give yourself over to this twisted masterpiece that somehow got released by the assembly line Hollywood system of the golden age era of the 1930s, right at the dawn of the Hays Code. "There is no emperor ... only an empress."

After this film, Sternberg and Dietrich had one more collaboration in them before they parted ways for good. I'll have that one up next just as soon as I get around to it.

(Rating: 10/10)

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