I really love that silver shimmer of black and white films: the contrasts, the shadows, the textures - light reflected in every actor's eyes - even the animal actors. And I've seen a fair number of old black and white films. But nothing prepared me for Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, not even his best known picture, The Blue Angel. Beyond the beyond doesn't begin to describe it. In fact I'm not that sure where to begin. Von Sternberg himself calls it “a censor-baiting cocktail of sensual excess and riotous design” which is close to the mark.The Scarlet Empress definitely flouted the motion picture censorship guidelines.
Basically the story advances, careening between horror and the grotesque, quickly followed by large helpings of bathos. And everywhere the ghastly monstrous gargoyles inhabit the entire Kremlin, clutching massive candles in their stone fists. It takes eight ladies-in-waiting to open the gargantuan double doors of the private apartments. Marlene Dietrich is cast as the naif Austrian princess who marries the mad Russian Czar played brilliantly by Sam Jaffe. As the disillusioned Czarina Catherine, she turns temptress, and becomes deeply involved in court intrigue. Finally, she transforms herself into The Great, an exterminating angel who leads battalions of her husband's trusted guards against him.
Von Sternberg is the ultimate auteur/painter/puppeteer/lighting genius. Each frame stands alone as an individual painting reminiscent of Watteau, Fragonard or Brueghel. Von Sternberg's memoir Fun in a Chinese Laundry shares his side of the story, including details about his artistic theory. Believe me he's got his share of opinions. Did I forget to mention that Marlene D.'s daughter plays the young Austrian princess?