In an effort to rejuvenate my thirst for film I have partaken on an ambitious endeavor. I have decided to compile my list of 100 favorite films, “rewatch” them, and write a brief review. I encourage you to follow along.
84. The Scarlett Empress (von Sternberg, 1934)
Has their been a director more un-appologetically garish, and visually indulgent than Josef von Sternberg? No, there hasn’t. Von Sternberg’s visual style is the cinematic equivalent of a sweet 16 birthday cake, and that is exactly what makes his films so engaging. Instead of revolting the viewer his visuals, from the costumes, to the meticulous set designs, play on childhood fantasies and nightmares. They are fairytales in the truest sense, with over-the-top villains, batting eye damsels, and sets decorated from one corner of the screen to the next.
In The Scarlett Empress, Catherine The Great, played beautifully by Marlene Dietrich, is the quintessential fairytale princess, but like all of von Sternberg’s characters, just like his visuals, she is the perversion of everything we have come to expect. Dietrich’s innocence and naivety pours out of every wide-eyed stare she gives. Her sexual curiosities are palpable along with her fear of the great unknown. Later in the film she is the heroine, jaded and vile in her righteousness, and her pleasantries with the men are sweeter than any candy. We don’t just root for Catherine, we lose ourselves in her. We are seduced by her and the dreamy romances of her world.
My only wish for this film is that it were longer. It would be a joy to see Catherine’s struggle and subsequent triumph played out more. But I reconcile this with the thought that the film isn’t so much about her struggle and ultimate triumph, but a brief glimpse into a past that never existed. It is a frosty day dream of spectacular notion, meant only to be visited briefly.
– James Merolla