Director: Josef von Sternberg
By Roderick Heath
In the hectic days of 1920s Hollywood, Jonas Sternberg, son of Austrian Jewish emigrants who had lived in the United States since childhood, was just one of many prodigious blow-ins. But he worked his way up through the ranks, and eventually appended an exotic, aristocratic background to his resume for his prestige-hungry industry by adding “von” to his name.
The affectation fit Sternberg, a fan of the similarly faux-Junker, equally talented Erich von Stroheim, as it suited his aesthetic sensibility and self-image as outsized cinema artist, with a boldly cosmopolitan outlook and floridly artistic eye. He found success as a director with his stylised melodramas, like the prototypical gangster film, Underworld (1927); The Last Command (1928); and Docks of New York (1928).
Sternberg’s delight in rapturously visualised storytelling was threatened as cinema culture changed with the coming of sound. His first work in the new medium, Thunderbolt (1929), wasn’t popular, so he accepted an offer to work in Germany on an adaptation of a Heinrich Mann novel, which became The Blue Angel (1930). For the film, he made the discovery that would revive his career, and then mark it forever, by casting Marlene Dietrich as the femme fatale Lola-Lola. Dietrich gave Sternberg a face to fetishize, a model to construct intimate and spectacular cinematic dreams around. Dietrich was Sternberg’s canvas and alter ego, an actual upper-crust German, as imperious on screen as Sternberg wished to be off it. The Blue Angel became one of the most legendary films of the early sound period and an international hit.
Few collaborations of director and star have sustained as much mystique and fervent fascination as that between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg’s work with Dietrich remains something of a by-word for the quasi-erotic entrapment that can develop between the director male and the acting female, a reputation that probably stands in the way of the duo’s very real accomplishments. Sternberg brought Dietrich back to Hollywood with him, and initially gained great success in a feverishly creative partnership, as the fleshy Teutonic ingénue transformed into svelte Hollywood goddess.
But within a couple of years, things were running off the rails. Having initially cast Dietrich as an amoral tart, and then as a redeemable woman of mystery in films like Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), Sternberg elevated her to majestic feminine power with The Scarlet Empress, whilst the main male protagonist becomes the rueing fool, seemingly a studied autobiographical portrayal of how the power relations between director and star had steadily evolved.
For a time, however, it looked like both were doomed. Repeated flops sent Sternberg to the fringe, and Dietrich struggled to find a way to make herself acceptable to audiences tired of continental mystery. Dietrich recovered and became a fixture, but Sternberg, in spite of making several great films in the strangest ways and places after their union was sundered, remained an exile. The Scarlet Empress looks both forward and back, but is fundamentally unconcerned with its moment—the stolid, businesslike mid-1930s.
The passion for visual expressiveness harks back to the already faded apogees of late silent film, as does the blending of New World energy and sardonic attitude with a hysterically Never-Never Land take on Russian political antiquity, in opposition to the stately, stagy charms of sound’s new prestige cinema like Rasputin and the Empress (1932), Cavalcade (1933), or Conquest (1937). And yet it plants seeds for high cinematic style’s resurgence with directors like Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein in his later works, and through to modern filmmakers.
The air of fin de siècle folly is exacerbated by awareness that the film’s calamitous flop was partly due to being targeted by Legion of Decency condemnation, making it a figurehead for the rising regime of the Production Code and the Hays Office, to which the film’s ornery sexuality and feverish celebration of an open id’s vision of history feels like a last blown raspberry.
Sternberg reinterprets the life of Catherine The Great as a kind of filthy novel passed around the girls in a boarding school, girls much like the naïve but excitable young lady Catherine was when she was still called Sophia Fredericka. Raised by a sternly fixated mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth (Olive Tell), as one of a stable of marriageable Hapsburg princesses, Sophia is introduced as a small girl (played as a child by Dietrich’s own daughter Maria) suffering from scarlet fever, already being bullied by her mother to conform to the plans for her, though her wry doctor encourages a show of defiance: “Stick out your tongue and say ‘ah.’”
Her tutor, Wagner (Edward Van Sloan), reads to her accounts of the wicked excesses and depravities of Russian nobility, accounts that spin Sophia’s rapt mind off into a whirl of sadistic delights. This is the first show of Sternberg’s wild imagery, a startlingly stylish roundelay of blood-curdling cruelty, with the various depictions seeming to “turn” as if on pages: a naked woman tumbling out of an iron maiden; men tethered in semi-abstract arrays, a horizontal tracking shot depicting a proliferation of bound hands; cruel machines with men spinning on them; an enthusiastic executioner lopping off heads; a gleeful Tsar tearing open the blouse of a trussed young woman; another beaming with lunatic pleasure as he rings a huge bell whose clapper has been replaced by some victim; and more stripped, topless lasses being burnt at the stake. Even after you’ve seen this sequence a handful of times it’s hard to process, so raw and stunning is it, how barely censored, how far beyond the pale of what would very soon be Hollywood norms. Sternberg uses blurring effects in the scene transitions to just slightly mask the bared breasts and gore. What makes it doubly weird and potent is the fact that a young girl’s head is being filled with this stuff and that on some level, like many kids, Sophia delights in such morbid detail. It will define her understanding, and, later, her wholehearted entrance into that world.
The grotesquely sexualised violence anticipates the friezes within the palace of the Tsars, Sternberg cheekily dissolves from the man swinging in the bell to the grown Sophia, now a blond-ringleted, doll-lipped, wide-eyed naïf on a garden swing, signalling her fate has been sealed. Indeed, when she returns to the palace, she learns that her mother and slightly more empathic father, Prince August (C. Aubrey Smith), have arranged for her marriage to Grand Duke Peter of Russia.
The rakish Count Alexei (John Lodge) has come to collect the princess, and Sophia’s mother insists on accompanying them to Russia, just managing to stymie Alexei’s nascent desire to seduce Sophia before their arrival. Met with all the grandeur and pomp of the autocratic state, Sophia is plunged directly into the midst of an insanely Byzantine world. The suffering victims of the early montage now seem to live within the fabric of that state, as the palace is filled with carved grotesques and statues mimicking and mocking the pretences of the living people who share space with them.
Although based on Catherine’s diaries, The Scarlet Empress is mostly a hymn to the way history ought to have gone, presenting Catherine at once as liberated debauchee and yet also cleansing force of futurism, and casually dismissing the national history as a hymn to “ignorance, violence, fear and oppression,” of which the grotesque Peter is a perfect example—imbecilic, devolved, and malignant. That was certainly Catherine’s own story, though some historians now think Peter was a much stronger liberalising influence who fell afoul of reactionaries thanks to his goodwill for Prussia and democratic proclivities. Sternberg doesn’t even seem to think much of Catherine as enlightened despot, describing her rather as the Messalina of the North, although that’s eventually revealed to be a kind of compliment. Although The Scarlet Empress depicts a woman rising to power in a highly masculine realm, Sternberg finds this logical, depicting it as a triumph for the exceptional female who harnesses men as a source of power through sex and charisma.
Catherine emerges, however, from the clasp of powerful matriarchs, in this case, her mother and then her stepmother, Russia’s present ruler, the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), who makes it perfectly clear to young Sophia that she’s been imported to give Russia an heir, and changes her name to Catherine to meet parochial standards. When Catherine is introduced to her husband-to-be, she finds Peter (Sam Jaffe) diverging widely from Count Alexei’s description of an exemplary specimen of manhood: he proves to be a bug-eyed half-wit with a free-floating id, a love of toys and a black-haired, feral-like mistress, Countess Vorontsova (Ruthelma Stevens).
She has a habit of appearing at inopportune moments to collect the gadgets Peter leaves behind him, hoping to catch people in incriminating poses, as she does Catherine and Alexei. The gadget, a kind of spinning wheel with a soldier mounted on it, offers one of Sternberg’s many visual jokes, as when Peter first appears, he places it in Catherine’s lap, the rotating figure readily mirroring Catherine’s shock and sense of starting on a ride she can’t get off.
Sternberg had readily adapted to sound cinema, and indeed was one of the directors, along with the likes of Rouben Mamoulian, Alfred Hitchcock, Lewis Milestone, and Fritz Lang, who had done the hard work of proving the new form could balance visual form with the theatrical necessities of dialogue. And yet the scene grammar and structuring of The Scarlet Empress deliberately harkens back to the pure visual-tapestry effects of Fritz Lang and Stroheim, whilst anticipating the open-sprawl, elliptical structuring of later filmmakers like Luchino Visconti, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Sergio Leone, hacking back dialogue for many scenes and preferring visual exposition not just of story, but of character and psychology. Sternberg structures the film around two affairs of state, each building a particular rhythm, the first a plunge into eroticised hell. Catherine and Peter are married in a scene of heightened, almost dreamlike-beauty, where only Peter’s mad eyes belie the insidious realities behind the plethora of religious icons, veils, spectacular ornaments, robed holy men, and faces.
Sternberg binds Dietrich, Jaffe, and Lodge together in serial edits, making it clear the marriage is a strange kind of ménage a trois bound by guilt, jealousy, fear, and lunacy. Dietrich’s face becomes holy icon, as a votive candle is held up before her face in voluminous close-up, good looks transduced into adult beauty, the proximity of the candle sharpening the image with the kiss of hot light seeming to burn both pretty cheek and cinema screen, at the edge of both religious transcendence and infernal pain, as she is transfigured from single girl to woman who is going to have to survive in a world where marriage is a soul-rending crucible. The wedding gives way to arcane ritual, as Orthodox ministers bless the marriage bed, making it clear that Catherine has not married a man so much as a state, whilst she journeys to the wedding banquet through the bowels of the palace with more of its bizarre statuary.
The banquet is just as dense and tangled with overflowing detail as the wedding, but whereas Sternberg shot the nuptials from angles that carved up those details into faintly abstract, even cubist spectacles, the banquet is first glimpsed via an overhead tracking shot. The camera surveys the massive table festooned with the carcasses of roast animals and oddball decorations—a leaning skeleton arranged as if to drink from a pitcher of wine, a lushly female figurine clasping bunches of grapes, a roast deer with fruits stuck on its antlers—in a whorl of animal appetites and images of fecundity and death violently juxtaposed. A pull-back crane shot then regards the whole scene in all its teeming detail, like some vision of a Renaissance parable painter. Sternberg then offers portrait shots of the protagonists at the feasting table—fatuous Elizabeth is drunk and wobbly, doll-like Catherine is regaled by a fiddler, houndlike Alexei slouches testily, the patriarch Todorsky (Davison Clark) tilts his head in wry tedium—each lost in their own space of conflicting necessity and will, whilst other guests are unified with the twisted statues and bones.
Catherine is soon installed in her bedroom, with its walls covered in spectacular gilt and icon paintings, promises of religious fulfilment both warding off evil and encaging her, as her husband, silhouetted and monstrous, steals in for the wedding night, and a title card and cutaway shows all Russia praying that night for an heir to the throne. But it soon becomes clear that Peter didn’t know what to do with her, and Catherine is increasingly browbeaten by Elizabeth for not conceiving yet.
Sternberg’s vision of the Kremlin is thoroughly psychologised, every corner dense with shadows and seemingly packed with gargoyles that leeringly mimic the stances and mindsets of the characters. Peter is a slinking, crawling id-beast, abused by his aunt the Empress, who drills holes in the walls of bedrooms for erotic insights. One of those walls is Elizabeth’s, whom he hopes to see with Catherine. One of the film’s most funny and memorable moments sees Catherine agog at the sight of Peter’s drill slowly worming its way through the eye of a portrait hanging on the wall. The hidden eyes that perceive all in a paranoid state are literalised in this shot as the décor comes to unseemly life, and reveal the luridly voyeuristic side of Sternberg’s imagination.
Alexei, who starts off as the very image of a cavalier dripping masculine power, is increasingly marginalised, an onlooker of dark, marauding potency doomed nonetheless to be Catherine’s passive fool because he’s also Elizabeth’s lover. The Empress humiliates Catherine and chokes off her attachment to Alexei through an elaborate game whereby she has Catherine admit Alexei to her chamber via a secret door. Later, Catherine herself repeats the gesture with Alexei now as the unlucky doorman, as her way of letting him know why he’s out of favour, a gesture Alexei can finally only accept with wry, abashed grace. Sternberg’s framings see Alexei variously juxtaposed with arrow-stuck sufferers, looming beasts, and a horny devil that suggests both his sexual desire and his status as cuckold.
Elizabeth’s gesture in quelling Catherine’s crush on Alexei backfires, however, not on her, but on the system in which Catherine’s intended to be a mere cog. She tosses the locket Alexei gave her with his portrait out the window, and Sternberg portrays its fall as almost eternal, seeming to move through several different seasons and climes, a vision of romance wilfully denied. Catherine dives out into the snowy night immediately to find it, but instead is caught by guards, whereupon she determines to let one seduce her, initiating her into a self-willed future. The affair gives her a son, and whilst her husband’s wits are sharpened surprisingly by fury in realising he’s been cuckolded, Catherine’s motherhood is popularly hailed.
This leaves her unshakeably secure for the time being, even as Elizabeth demands stringent care for the baby boy on pain of torturous execution if he so much as sniffles or coughs. Nonetheless, Peter declares war on Catherine as he invites her to his play pen to entertain her with the sight of his sawing the head off a blonde doll, signalling his intent to execute her once he becomes Tsar, whilst Vorontsova mocks her.
Of course, Catherine is arming herself as well, having systematically seduced the entire officer corps. Peter, as a title card reveals, enjoys marching his living tin soldiers up and down the corridors of the palace when it’s raining, and stages a mock execution of Catherine. When faced with rows of fit young officers paraded before her, Catherine picks and chooses her lovers. Where Alexei almost seduced her in a horse pen as she nervously chewed on a stalk of hay, now she surveys her assemblies of manly flesh chewing on a hay stalk as insouciantly as Groucho Marx on his cigar.
When Elizabeth expires, Dietrich’s performance reaches an apogee in a subtle moment, when the patriarch rings the bell to announce the Empress’s death whilst Catherine is playing a game of blind-man’s bluff with her admirers. Catherine strips the blindfold from her eyes and, upon realising the bell’s import, her face is charged with electric fear, then exaltation and determination, now that her last defence other than what she can provide for herself is gone.
The patriarch had already solicited Catherine to keep her husband from becoming Tsar: “I suppose you know that the Grand Duke isn’t exactly pleased with the present state of affairs,” to which she replied, “State of affairs? What affairs? I haven’t had an affair for some time,” before assuring the priest that her own arts will get her further than any mere political conspiracy. Peter’s plotting perversely lays the seeds for his own destruction, during a particularly bratty display at a religious feast where it’s customary to give alms for the poor.
Catherine and her circle donate lavishly to the patriarch, whilst Peter gives the patriarch a slap in the face, to which he responds so coolly, “That was for me—now what have you got for the poor?” Peter then offends Catherine by toasting Vorontsova and humiliating one of Catherine’s officer lovers, Captain Gregori Orloff (Gavin Gordon).
Sternberg offers more than a hint of onanistic delight in detailing Catherine’s gradual perversion from doe-eyed girl to hood-eyed seductress, but mixes it with a powerful strand of feminist-minded melodrama, a form popular in the pre-Code era that was just moving out of favour. Yet Sternberg laid a template for whole zones of modern popular culture yet to be invented. Camp culture would delight in the film’s exemplification of Sternberg’s fetishistic textures, particularly when regarding Dietrich, who occasionally becomes mere mask of female perfection bathed in delirious light and shade, shadowed by lace and veil.
Shifts in status are registered in costuming in a way that rejects historicism and moves according to haute couture magazine logic: Catherine graduates from fluttery, flowery, conservative dresses to huge gowns adorned with frou frou, and then, as she charges to victory, a fabulous snow-white cavalry uniform that speaks to the deepest reaches of camp, as Sternberg, who had not shied away from spelling out Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous edge, rings the bells for his creation’s emergence not just as Tsarina but as pansexual deity. Surface is gateway to truth in Sternberg’s vision here, every element placed not just for aesthetic value but also the creation of a mimetic world. Moreover, The Scarlet Empress, in its approach to a historical figure as a study of Catherine’s ascent from pawn to powerbroker, has proven persuasive; modern films taking a similar slant, like Elizabeth (1998) and Marie Antoinette (2006), do not merely evoke it, but recreate some of its accents note for note.
Sternberg’s approach, moreover, expanded the palette of Lang, Abel Gance, and Stroheim, and then permeated other directors’ sense for the possibilities of cinema even as it seemed to sink into oblivion. Michael Curtiz would slick it up and use it in his historical swashbucklers. Sergei Eisenstein would take permission from it for his Ivan the Terrible films. Similarities to and anticipations of Citizen Kane (1941) have been critically documented, particularly in the theme of lost innocence, power, and torment expressed through psyche-describing surroundings, whilst Orson Welles’ baroque Shakespeare films owe much of their similarly seething, surrealist-tinged sense of landscape and setting and internally divided visual grammar to Sternberg.
The plethora of dreamy double-exposures and transformative close-ups run through an underground current into the short works of Kenneth Anger and into Martin Scorsese’s most stylised works: Taxi Driver (1976) is replete with its layered, interiorised, oneiric edge; Casino (1995) owes some of its mood of the imperial charnel house to it, as well as its swooning direction; whilst Kundun (1997) retells it as positive fable, but with a rhyming structure and vivaciously similar visual touches, like the entrance of the Chinese army carrying icons of their religion of Maoism, as Catherine’s partisans do here. Meanwhile, Ken Russell tried many times to affect a similar mix of high cultural spectacle and down-and-dirty exposé.
Sternberg had a fascination for intense, infernal moral fables, often with characters that trail their pasts like guilty secrets and are catapulted between social levels. All of his films with Dietrich contain an element of such fables, as does The Last Command. His version of Crime and Punishment (1935) walks Raskolnikov’s sweating existential terror through the expressionist world of Sternberg and fellow silent masters like G.W. Pabst and Frank Borzage, whilst The Shanghai Gesture (1941) similarly spins a young, spotless heroine down into Hades, where she finds she likes it.
The Scarlet Empress plays its narrative as just such an innocent’s infinite corruption, but inverts the usual moral to end in a triumph that plays as cultural orgasm of nascent matriarchy. Only by accepting and indeed outpacing the process of corruption by others does Catherine master it and become a world-ordering force. The finale builds with intense rhythm as Catherine makes her move, joining her cavaliers and the patriarch for a ride first to refuge, and then into the palace. The perverted interior of the royal abode is invaded by brilliant white stallions ridden by Cossacks, raw natural force expelling evil, whilst the patriarch carries a cross festooned with a buckled Christ figure that suggests less religious exculpation than substitution.
Orloff takes revenge and does his duty by Catherine as he corners Peter in his bedroom and strangles him, a fate presaged earlier as Catherine, furious at Peter’s spurning of her at the fest, tied a scarf into a lethal knot. The soundtrack churns together Wagner and Tchaikovsky as apotheosis nears, whilst the visuals explode into criss-crossing double exposures, the very substance of the world seeming to leap as Catherine gains victory, the “1812 Overture” blaring out. The motif of political coup was undoubtedly as touchy to audiences of 1934 as was the general moral nullity, as much of Europe had just gone fascist, and the eventual downfall of the Russian nobility echoes right through the film.
Sternberg subverts this, too, as he refashions the triumph of revolutions, be it American republican, Russian Soviet, or German Nazi, as the annunciation of Woman, with bells ringing out in sanctifying peals. Dietrich, beaming with fearsome exultation, is last glimpsed with Sternberg’s wickedest symbolic flourish, holding onto the reins of her grand white steed as she is hailed by her studs. Here Sternberg again evokes the seamy flipside to the triumph, via the popular rumour that Catherine eventually died taking her obsession with large phalluses to an extreme with a horse.