I’m taking lessons as fast as I can.
Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Louise Dresser) wanted to make sure Russia had a strong leader and in so doing ensured it wouldn’t be her bloodline taking up the mantle. Not the way Josef von Sternberg‘s The Scarlet Empress tells it, as adapted from Catherine II’s diaries by Eleanor McGeary and Manuel Komroff. It is she who chooses Princess Sophia Frederica of Prussia (Marlene Dietrich) to marry her nephew (Sam Jaffe‘s Grand Duke Peter) and provide a male heir she could then raise in her ruthlessly domineering way. The problem, however, is that neither Catherine (as Sophia is renamed upon arrival) nor Peter likes the other. There doesn’t seem to be the potential of a child at all let alone a son and Elizabeth’s health won’t handle a lengthy wait.
The result is an historical farce mocking the pomp, circumstance, and debauchery of the royal class in general. You can’t help but laugh at the start with Dietrich (playing her character as an innocent teen) going from hand to hand of everyone in a room, kissing them “Hello” or “Goodbye” despite their utter disdain (besides her father, C. Aubrey Smith, always giving her a kiss on the forehead back). Then there’s the lecherous Count Alexei (John Lodge) flirting with young Catherine despite being the man Elizabeth entrusted with bringing the girl back “untouched.” And, of course, the dullard Peter with his child-like smile and empty eyes leaving behind toy soldiers everywhere so his “employed entertainer” Lizzie (Ruthelma Stevens) can collect them and eavesdrop. It’s a veritable zoo.
Elizabeth is constantly yelling and demeaning her subjects. Peter is giving off some major psychopathic vibes. And Catherine is caught in the middle, unsure of what to do. Her mother taught her to be loyal and attentive, but everyone is pulling and pushing her this way and that with mixed signals and impatience. Should she be the doting wife? Should she allow Alexei’s advances? Should she become Elizabeth’s slave? Despite being a prisoner in this grotesque castle, however, this precocious young woman pays attention. She sees where the power lies and begins to understand how to grab it. How can she not after dealing with a sniveling brat for a husband and a strong confident matriarch taking whatever she wants? Eventually, Catherine will start taking too.
Not counting the brief prologue of young Sophia (played by Dietrich’s real-life daughter Maria Riva), the film spans around two decades in less than two hours. von Sternberg utilizes a lot of interstitials to set-up scenes and explain transitions, constantly using pejorative terms for all involved considering the conditions in Russia. Catherine becomes somewhat of an antihero as a result, his description of her as “sinister” foreshadowing the type of leader she’ll become while presenting her as the lone person of integrity amongst a pack of wolves. Their actions are what drive her to become who she does for survival’s sake. She knows her time is limited unless she gains the right allies to stand at her side when the inevitable moment arises to push her husband out.
The journey can be repetitive and a bit monotonous at times, but von Sternberg maintains a satirical tone of humor throughout to keep interest intact. Catherine must bide her time until the right pieces fall into place, ensuring that we do the same. Dietrich’s embellished wonder at the start and her wry cynicism later help us invest in her plight while the political machinations progress. And for those moments when the performances are less animated, we’re provided a stunningly opulent set with garish, gargoyle-like statues (created by Pete Babusch) everywhere. They hold candles and stand between guests at the dinner table. They watch with their silent screams as these horrible aristocrats sharpen their knives while the Russian people starve. I kept waiting for them to come alive.
They don’t need to, of course. This fictionalized account of Catherine II’s rise to power is a nightmarish fantasy of its own. We don’t therefore need demons when we already have cutthroat monsters willing to do anything to protect themselves from their enemies a little longer. Something is lost along the way as a result—we don’t care about Catherine once the ride itself becoming crazier and darker proves the highlight—but that’s okay because the experience is enough to hold our intrigue. We accept Catherine turning from victim to victimizer on a dime upon realizing everyone is out for themselves because we need to move forward and learn what that means for her future. These are the salaciously vindictive Cliff’s Notes of eighteenth-century Russian history.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.