Cluttered, campy, and garish, The Scarlet Empress is the cinema of obsession, like a monument built by a mad tyrant to his beloved queen, or rather, a mausoleum raised around her while she still draws breath. That may scare you off, or it may fascinate you; either way, I thought it only fair to start with a warning. Those who require a polished script or nuanced performances will recoil in horror, but for the happy few who can be tantalized by the play of light and shadow or mystified by a prolonged shot of a face, The Scarlet Empress is a sacred object.
Its allure derives from the subject herself, the luminous Marlene Dietrich, adorned and adored so lavishly by director Josef von Sternberg that she becomes our obsession as much as his. Well, almost. Theirs was the greatest collaboration in all of cinema simply because he was willing to move mountains for her, and she had a face that was etched in stone. The Scarlet Empress is the pinnacle of their seven collaborations, the upper limits of their excesses and fetishization before the constraints of the Production Code rendered them impotent. Dietrich plays Catherine the Great, and von Sternberg chronicles her rise to power in explicit, if not historic, detail. He surrounds her by the grotesque – twisted statues looming over stony halls, a macabre wedding feast of gut-wrenching proportions, her mad man-child husband played with childish glee by Sam Jaffe – and amidst the dismal surroundings, Dietrich positively glows. Von Sternberg films her through lace and flame, preserving her image so we can venerate it through the ages. It’s as if he made the film solely as a shrine to her, and my appreciation for it comes not from any distinguished narrative, but from a fascination with this artifact of ancient Hollywood, crafted by two of the most decadent personalities of their time.