The Scarlet Empress is certainly one of the most dazzling films in history. Created towards the end of Josef von Sternberg's torrid cinematic love affair with Marlene Dietrich's face, the film is at once bizarrely funny and surprisingly intense. It's also dripping with sexuality - code-flaunting, exhilarating, hilarious sexuality, the kind you only hear about in movies. The film charts the course of Catherine the Great of Russia, from little girl to her first moments as Empress after taking the throne from her dimwitted husband. Dietrich plays two roles in the film: first she is the cherubic, wide-eyed young woman who comes to Moscow to be married and honor her husband until she abruptly and effortlessly transitions into the confident sexual predator, enjoying her life and intent on keeping it that way. Both are infused with their own brand of sexuality, and both are endlessly fun to watch.
Made in the early years of talkies, the film has long stretches which could easily be silent. There are a great number of cards, and whole sequences, most notably the wedding scene, are accomplished without dialogue. But neither element feels out of balance, and visually the film manages to stay interesting regardless of the presence of words. Stylistically, Sternberg's film might best be compared to the beautiful and foreboding first part of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. This earlier film is beautifully shot, with oversized sets and shadows thrown into the unlikeliest of corners. But aside from the royal Russian setting, everything else in the film couldn't be further from that straight-faced epic. Sternberg delivers a tone that seems to be a cross between Max Ophüls at his most flamboyant and the Marx Brothers at their most abstract. His camera has only one purpose - to present Dietrich at her most iconically beautiful - and it seems invented for this sole purpose, seemingly capturing moments without her in equally striking compositions only by chance. He sticks a crass, grumpy old mother out of a Lubitsch or Capra movie into the role of the elder Empress, Dietrich's mother-in-law, while her lover seems to be channeling Clark Gable (who the very same year made the perfect It Happened One Night).
Dietrich plays her part in this tribute to herself masterfully - really, some of the great moments in the first half century of cinema are here. How can you wrong with a line like "Entirely too many man love my hair," really? Dietrich's second half is so outrageous that many viewers will see The Scarlet Empress as camp. There's no denying it works on this level - everyone here is just having too much fun. But the spectacle of the thing, infused into everything from the sets and their towering gargoyles to the music and the sly cards that transition between scenes (let's just say the film has some mean things to say about Russia), is where the true pleasure of the film reveals itself. Obviously movies like this are simply not made anymore, but there isn't even a contemporary equivalent for the film. The Scarlet Empress is everything but the kitchen sink filmmaking at its most exciting and inventive.