Josef Von Sternberg John Gillett - Essay

John Gillett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ostensibly The Scarlet Empress] is about the marriage of the young and innocent Sophia Frederica to the mad Grand Duke Peter of Russia, and the insurrection which resulted in her becoming the new Empress Catherine. Looking at it today, one is continually puzzled (and delighted) by Sternberg's ambivalent attitudes towards the material. Surely nobody could have doubted that he was sending it up ("those ideas are old-fashioned—this is the eighteenth century" proclaims the ardent, black-wigged Count Alexei to the pouting young Catherine). Yet Sternberg's insolent wit was the last thing commented on at the time. Strange, too, how these comic anachronisms are made to alternate with set-pieces played solely for their dramatic or exotic appeal; all dialogue ceases and Sternberg constructs a sequence "painted with light" which fully confirms his reputation as one of the cinema's great visual stylists….

Sternberg is supposed to have thought of the Empress as a fishwife, but it is all too raucous and calculated for comfort. The film's portrait of a harsh, hypocritical Court looks artlessly naive by comparison with the cynical inventions of [Erich von] Stroheim or [Ernst] Lubitsch. They may not have had all the experience of middle European high life that they claimed, yet they had a more genuine and ingrained sophistication which protected them against some of the traps Sternberg falls into.

Neither of these directors, however, could have surpassed The Scarlet Empress's grand finale, with its clamour of trumpets and bells (in an enthusiastic flurry of Stemberg's favourite lap-dissolves), Dietrich stomping about the palace in a hussar's outfit and The Ride of the Valkyries on the soundtrack. Here, in the film's most strikingly assembled sequence, mad Peter is quickly despatched behind a huge black cross, the horsemen charge up the stairs and into the throne-room, and Sternberg's camera wings up to a final exultant close-up of Catherine, now looking as pop-eyed as the Grand Duke himself. After this, it would be churlish to ask for more.

John Gillett, "'The Scarlet Empress'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1965 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 1965, p. 96.