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The Criterion Collection presents
The Scarlet Empress (1934)

"Although for a long time we've heard a great deal about your beauty, Your Highness, I was not quite prepared to see such a vision of loveliness."
- Count Alexei (John Lodge)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: May 07, 2001

Stars: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser
Other Stars: C. Aubrey Smith, Gavin Gordon, Olive Tell, Ruthelma Stevens, Erville Alderson, Davison Clark, Philip Sleeman, Marie Wells, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Gerald Fielding, Maria Riva
Director: Josef von Sternberg

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (Brief nudity)
Run Time: 01h:44m:24s
Release Date: May 08, 2001
UPC: 715515011822
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ C+B-B B-

DVD Review

After an unexpected introduction to the movie industry through a job as a film restorer, director Josef von Sternberg began his way through a myriad of jobs in film production from 1916 to 1925 before finally establishing himself as a director with his first feature The Salvation Hunters. His contempt for his contemporary directors led him to assert his self-appointed superiority as a director in near tyrannical control over his film productions, his cast, and his crew. He aspired to create one vision—his own—and the people under his direction were tools to this end. His background in the various technical fields behind film production emphasized his attention to detail in lighting, costuming, set design and photography. He is one of few directors in his time who personally operated the cameras, and felt the project was his entire responsibility, leaving nothing to chance. His breakthrough film, Underworld became the prototype for the American gangster movie, and with the 1928 release of The Last Command, von Sternberg would begin a decade as one of the leading artists of the time. Chosen to produce the first German talking picture, he gambled on casting an unknown actress for the lead role in Der Blau Angel (The Blue Angel). Her name was Marlene Dietrich, and that film would mark the beginning of an eight film, professional collaboration, as well as a five year romantic relationship.

The Scarlet Empress was Dietrich's sixth project for von Sternberg. Based upon the diary of Catherine II, Tsarina of Russia, the film tells the tale of a young German girl, who is deigned by her mother to become the wife of the Tsar in an arranged marriage, and bear for him the heir to the Russian Empire. A critical and box office failure on its release, it begins with a young Sophia Frederica (Maria Riva), whose mother instructs her on her future, listening to horrifying bedtime stories about Peter the Great from her manservant, which she vividly imagines. The setup shows the formal atmosphere of her upbringing, emphasizing the courteous and proper fashion in which she has been raised. We move forward in time to the day when the dashing Count Alexei (John Lodge) arrives, following the orders of then Empress Elizabeth of Russia to deliver the beautiful young Sophia (Dietrich) to her son, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe) as his wife. Alexei is understandably enamoured with Sophia, though his advances towards her during the seven week journey to the Russian capital are deflected, especially due to Sophia's belief that her husband-to-be is even more attractive than her escort. Upon their arrival in Moscow, Sophia and her mother are presented to Empress Elizabeth. It is here that Sophia is renamed Catherine, and is first introduced to her betrothed, who turns out to be a bumbling idiot. Her fate sealed, she resigns to be married, but wants no part of Peter, whose childlike escapades around the palace drive her into the arms of Alexei—until she discovers that she may not be his only lover. Elizabeth, displeased that this young girl who will not accept her position willingly, sends her mother back to Germany, and as the tale of this historic figure unfolds, Catherine will use all her assets to maintain her presence at the head of the empire, despite her imbecilic husband and his mother.

Josef von Sternberg's command of his vision presents itself on many levels within the film. He uses unique set and lighting design, with huge gargoyles and massive doors dwarfing the character in their grand-scale costumes throughout the palace, and shadows and light forming a feast for the eyes in every scene. Dissolves, like the opening montage demonstrating the tortures described in Sophia's bedtime stories segued as pages turning in a book, and the bell ringing that forms the transition to an older girl on a swing are often very innovative and imaginative. Dietrich is magical in her transformation from the naïve, wide-eyed beauty to the scheming mistress of Russia, and Sam Jaffe delivers his role as the ever-grinning Peter to perfection. Though the pacing is uneven at times, the film is certainly a visual spectacle, and the humor injected by Louise Dresser as she rules her court keeps the otherwise heavy, gothic atmosphere from becoming overbearing. I believe this is another of those films that will require several viewings to fully appreciate, especially to give better attention to the detailed sets that are employed throughout. While I didn't find this as captivating on first viewing as I had expected, it does leave an indelible impression, more for its visual aesthetic than the depth of the story.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The Scarlet Empress is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Given the age of the film, it is hard to know what to expect from a release like this. Contrast seems a bit harsh in many shots, with whites tending to blow out and dark grays getting lost to black. There are the usual specks and scratches for a film this old, and a large number of jump cuts throughout. While much of this may be source related, I will criticize the excessive edge enhancement present throughout, which adds an unpleasant sharpness to the image, and emphasizes the abundant grain.

Once again I find myself contrasting the wonderful black and white imagery found in the stills section with that of the main feature, which loses much of the detail present in the costuming, though I can't be completely certain whether the most of the disc's faults are in the source or in the way it was transfered.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Mono audio is, understandably, frequency-limited, and some hiss is present throughout, as I would expect. There are some instances of warbling in the background noise, though I'm not sure of their origin, in the source or in later processing.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. BBC documentary, The World Of Josef von Sternberg
  2. Still gallery
Extras Review: The principal extra is a 20-minute BBC documentary, The World Of Josef von Sternberg, which features both on-camera interview footage with the director, plus footage shot during a mock scene setup. In this featurette, it is easy to see first hand the amount of control von Sternberg exercised over his cast and crew; he makes no apologies for treating his actors as "marionettes" for him to ply as necessary to achieve his vision - the only vision important to the film. The exposition of his attention to lighting here is an interesting piece, which calls to attention a fundamental part of filmmaking that is often taken for granted.

A stills section features 47 photos from the production, including publicity and behind-the-scenes photos, as well a set of color lobby cards.

The enclosed 12-page foldout features two essays on the film and its director, and this disc is noteable as the only one I've seen in recent history not to include Criterion's massive catalogue.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

With Marlene Dietrich commanding the screen, and Josef von Sternberg's glorious staging creating an ethereal setting for the tale of Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress certainly works on a visual level. The screenplay leaves a bit to be desired, despite some fine performances from the cast. Recommended for style, though substance is a little thin in my book.


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