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The Scarlet Empress (1934).

April 1, 2008

The Scoop:
Directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, this lavish epic is the pinnacle of their eight-film cinematic partnership.

Based on the diaries of Catherine the Great, “The Scarlet Empress” tells the tale of her hard, brutal rise to power in 18th century Russia, going from being naive Princess Sophie of Prussian to becoming Empress Catherine II. Dietrich is at her best, at turns sexy and ruthless, and the film is a visual treat. Von Sternberg’s direction and Bert Glennon’s moody cinematography highlight the sumptuous costumes and elaborate, meticulously-designed sets. It all adds up to a worshipful, erotically-charged love letter to one of history’s commanding personalities — which applies as much to Dietrich herself as to Catherine. Von Sterberg conflates the two, which would ordinarily be a problem, but here it becomes one of the film’s strengths.

There is plenty of sex, deception and passion on display — all sorts of things here to please the modern fan. “The Scarlet Empress” is von Sternberg’s greatest film, and one of the finest historical dramas of the ’30s.

Best Line:
“There is no emperor — there is only an empress.”

Side Note:
Despite the lavish production design, von Sternberg was still budget-conscious. For expensive crowd scenes, he reused footage from Ernst Lubitsch’s film “The Patriot” (1928).

Companion Viewing:
“Queen Christina” (1933) and “Elizabeth” (1998).

Links:
IMDb.

Take a Look:
The young, impetuous Sophie engages in a little girl talk:

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