The Scarlet Empress May 5, 2015
Imagine a staircase leading to an open window. A bright light leaks from its center, white doves flying in in hopes to escape the snowy cruelty of the outside. Confetti fills the air, spinning about in the circular drafts of the wind; a gold silken sheet floats down the staircase with the slink of a python on the prowl. Spotted horses, covered in the furs of their master, stand alongside its first couple steps, providing company for the lonely statues that adorn the corridor. As we stumble into this foyer, lost in a labyrinth of style, we’re both transfixed and horrified, hypnotized by its beauty, sickened by its seemingly unrelenting movement.
Such disquieting allure infects The Scarlet Empress, an epic in the unofficial style-over-substance genre that uses the biopic title as a way to give itself an excuse to call itself a movie. In reality, it’s a moving painting: Every scene is so crammed with ornate decor (ominous gargoyles, gnarled furniture, eye-clogging ball gowns) it’s as though Michelangelo was asked to set an empress’s likeness in marble and ended up exhausting himself after completion through a lavish series of works, dying from an overworked heart at its conclusion.
The Scarlet Empress is a carnival of decoration, born as the daughter of a hoarder with a mystical eye and dying as one of Prince’s jilted lovers. The film begins beautifully and ends beautifully, but changing is its initial feeling of enchantment, which slowly descends into a pit of contorted exoticism. A terminal case of style over substance can sometimes work, but The Scarlet Empress is all style and no substance, as if the style were the result of a drug-induced fever dream Josef von Sternberg once had.
But the film is made with a great deal of artistic intelligence, and that’s why its cloying ornamentation endures as a lastingly daring experiment 80-plus years later. So much of its outrageousness is done for the sake of simply doing it — doors are so meaty they require six well-dressed women to open them; Marlene Dietrich changes outfits at such an obsessive pace that loudness becomes a given, untouchable furs become a benchmark. Von Sternberg knows that these things make for interesting fixtures for the eye, and is relentless in how much he puts on the screen. It’s a conscious dedication, and it’s riveting, however tiring it eventually becomes.
Set aside its visual opulence and The Scarlet Empress is a “biopic,” its heroine being Catherine the Great, portrayed by a meticulously photographed Dietrich. The film focuses on her transformation from innocent high society daughter to supremely sexual, ultra-cruel dominatrix. Early in her life, she is forced to marry the idiotic Peter (Sam Jaffe), but as her marriage progresses, the more she coats in her confidence, lining up man after man to fulfill her most dreamy of desires.
The movie isn’t a precisely researched source for the history books; it’s a vehicle in which von Sternberg is able to go mad with every inhibition he has ever repressed, a vehicle for Dietrich to seal herself as a screen vamp for an eternity. She does not have to be an actress here — von Sternberg fondles her with his camera, bringing an unseen animal attraction to her erotic face, placing her in a room as though she is the center of the assorted configurations of decoration.
The Scarlet Empress was released just as the Hays Code was beginning to prosper, allowing for sexuality to ooze off the screen while retaining a snarky sense of bawdy humor. Dietrich is an actress whose persona feeds on sensuality — a film like this suits both her and von Sternberg’s ebullient talents. With no story to speak of, the film often leans toward the unexciting (style can only enrapture for so long before it begins to wane), but it’s momentous that the movie, almost a century old, was so ballsy in its design at a time where money spoke and artistry was more often a whisper than an overt cinematic fixture. B+