Retrospective Film review: the scarlet empress

The Scarlet Empress (1934) directed by Josef von Sternberg, starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, C. Aubrey Smith.

One of the last of the mythological ‘pre-code’ Hollywood films, The Scarlet Empress follows the rise to power of Catherine the Great (Dietrich), Empress of Russia. Though the film depicts a highly fictionalised account of the historical events, this doesn’t really matter – plot is almost an irrelevance in discussing The Scarlet Empress.

Dietrich’s collaborations with von Sternberg are some of her (and his) greatest films, and she was never more beautifully photographed than here. Von Sternberg’s camera lingers on her beautifully lit face for almost uncomfortably long periods of time, and the ugliness of the incredibly stylised world he creates around her only serves to heighten her beauty further. This film truly is a love letter to Dietrich.

There is little dialogue to speak of. Indeed, unlike many of Dietrich’s early films which highlighted both her singing with musical numbers, and her sharp wit with rapid dialogue, The Scarlet Empress feels almost like a silent film. The importance is placed firmly on the visual, and the opulence of the film’s production serves to provide some of the most breathtaking images ever captured on film.