The Scarlet Empress

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The Scarlet Empress
Scarlet empress.jpeg
French film poster
Directed byJosef von Sternberg
Produced byEmanuel Cohen
Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay byManuel Komroff (diary arranger)
Eleanor McGeary
Based onthe diary of Catherine the Great
StarringMarlene Dietrich
John Lodge
Sam Jaffe
Louise Dresser
C. Aubrey Smith
Music byW. Franke Harling
John Leipold
CinematographyBert Glennon
Edited byJosef von Sternberg
Sam Winston
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • September 15, 1934 (1934-09-15)
Running time
104 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Scarlet Empress is a 1934 American historical drama film made by Paramount Pictures about the life of Catherine the Great. It was directed and produced by Josef von Sternberg from a screenplay by Eleanor McGeary, loosely based on the diary of Catherine arranged by Manuel Komroff.

Even though substantial historical liberties are taken, the film is viewed positively by modern critics.[2][3] The Scarlet Empress is particularly notable for its attentive lighting and the expressionist art design von Sternberg creates for the Russian palace.

The film stars Marlene Dietrich as Catherine, supported by John Davis Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, and C. Aubrey Smith. Dietrich's daughter Maria Riva plays Catherine as a child.


Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) is the daughter of a minor German prince and an ambitious mother. She is brought to Russia by Count Alexei (John Davis Lodge) at the behest of Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) to marry her nephew, Grand Duke Peter (played as a half-wit by Sam Jaffe in his film debut). The overbearing Elizabeth renames her Catherine and reinforces the demand the new bride issue an heir to the throne.

Unhappy in her marriage, Catherine finds solace with the womanizing Alexei, first and foremost a paramour of the much-older Elizabeth. Rebuffed at this discovery, she takes lovers among the Russian Army to court its favor. When the old Empress dies seventeen years into their marriage, Peter ascends to the Russian throne and takes steps against his wife. Soon Catherine plots and exercises a coup, beginning a reign as Empress that will leave her known to history as Catherine the Great.

Cast (in credits order)[edit]


Josef von Sternberg described The Scarlet Empress as "a relentless excursion into style".[4] The historical accuracy is sacrificed for the sake of "a visual splendor verging on madness".[5] To show Russia as backward, anachronistic and in need of reform, the imperial court was set at the Moscow Kremlin rather than in Saint Petersburg, a more Europeanized city.[6] The royal palaces are represented as made of wood and full of religious sculptures (in fact, there is no free-standing religious sculpture in the Orthodox tradition). Pete Babusch from Switzerland created hundreds of gargoyle-like sculptures of male figures "crying, screaming, or in throes of misery" which "line the hallways, decorate the royal thrones, and even appear on serving dishes".[7] This resulted in "the most extreme of all of the cinematic representations of Russia".[6] In film critic Robin Wood's words:

"A hyperrealist atmosphere of nightmare with its gargoyles, its grotesque figures twisted into agonized contortions, its enormous doors that require a half-dozen women to close or open, its dark spaces and ominous shadows created by the flickerings of innumerable candles, its skeleton presiding over the royal wedding banquet table."[8]

Sexual connotations[edit]

The Scarlet Empress was one of the last mainstream Hollywood motion pictures to be released before the Hays Code was strictly enforced, and the film depicts topless women being tortured and burnt at the stake. The Scarlet Empress remains one of Marlene Dietrich's most frank and suggestive films, portraying Russia's future empress Catherine the Great first as a wide eyed innocent, quickly becoming a sexually-hungry dominatrix. The film is filled with erotic images and motifs.


  1. ^ Box office / business for The Scarlet Empress (1934) at IMDB
  2. ^ Roger Ebert, The Scarlet Empress Review, January 16, 2005.
  3. ^ Derek Malcolm, Josef von Sternberg: The Scarlet Empress, May 25, 2000, The Guardian.
  4. ^ Josef Von Sternberg. Fun in a Chinese Laundry. Mercury House, 1988. P. 265.
  5. ^ Charles Silver. Marlene Dietrich. Pyramid Publications, 1974. P. 51.
  6. ^ a b Berger, Stefan; Lorenz, Chris; Melman, Billie (21 August 2012). "Popularizing National Pasts: 1800 to the Present". Routledge. Retrieved 21 October 2017 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Leonard, Suzanne; Tasker, Yvonne (20 November 2014). "Fifty Hollywood Directors". Routledge. Retrieved 21 October 2017 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ Robin Wood. "The Scarlet Empress". The Criterion Collection Online Cinematheque.

External links[edit]