After The Blue Angel, The Scarlet Empress is probably the most well known of the collaborations between Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg. Nominally about the seizure of power by Catherine the Great (Dietrich) it is famous for its baroque visual style and is nearly equally infamous for treating history as (almost) nonsense. By any measure it is a flamboyant example of the medium’s potential; some might say that is the problem.
My qualifying “almost” relates to the difference between accuracy and truth. It is easy to dismiss the film’s febrile goings-on as an irresponsible fantasy, a grotesque distortion of Russian history that merely uses royalty as pawns for an imperial director interested only in display. Such criticism nonetheless ignores the most interesting aspects of the historical recreation, or to put the issue differently, dismisses the film for failing to be only one kind of historical recreation.
That the 18th century Russian court was not the film’s hellish warren is not at issue. (Compare, for example the shot from the film to the left in the Empress Elizabeth’s dining room with the image of the real space.) Von Sternberg, in fact, prided himself on the irreality of his films. At the same time, no less serious a filmmaker than Sergei Eisenstein indulged in similarly warped images of Russia’s past in Ivan the Terrible which was almost certainly influenced by Empress. Both films possess a nightmarish suggestive power that far exceeds any literal, superficial reality. So while 18th century Russia may not have looked like Empress, the film suggests the way things may have felt for those who had to live through it.
Eisenstein’s reputation as one of cinema’s greats lends Ivan respectability. Its heavy gloom at least seems serious (although it probably has even less historical veracity). Empress dares to treat mad excess as funny. All of the Sternberg/Dietrich films skirt camp. If Empress crosses the line, it is at a very high level and entertaining form of outrage. When, for example, the Orthodox patriarch asks those gathered at dinner for “something for the poor,” and Tsar Peter III (Sam Jaffe) slaps him, the cleric’s response, “That was for me. What have you got for the poor?” is deliciously funny precisely because it is so inappropriate. Or when Catherine, before ascending the throne, is told she will be sent to a convent once Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) dies, she replies that she could never go to a convent because she would have to shave her head and “Too many men like my hair.”
If such catty snipes cannot be reconciled with textbook history, it is tempting to suggest they nonetheless provide a kind of reality that po-faced solemnity cannot rival. Catherine the Great was no doubt a tremendously skillful politician whose importance in Russian history cannot be over-estimated. The Scarlet Empress suggests that one of her greatest assets was that she was also a royal bitch.