Apr 23, 2011

7 creepy things from Dietrich's "The Scarlett Empress" (1934)

Gosh, I suffered watching this film. My brother says I'm a coward, but really, how can you stand this level of creepiness, especially when you're watching it alone at night? Of course, this is not a terror movie, but dark films with suffocating atmospheres make me even more unease. It happened to me, for example, with Orson Well's The Trial and Touch of Evil. For those who haven't seen this film, The Scarlett Empress (1934; Josef von Sternberg) is the story of Catherine the Great  and how she became Empress of Russia. And here are its 7 creepiest things:

7. Count Alexi (John Lodge): The first time we meet the guy is when he travels to Prussia to present the intentions of Peter III of Russia to marry young Sophie Friederike Auguste (soon to be Catherine). Well, until that moment we've seen a luminous scene of young Marlene swinging, so his presence is very dark and tough and presages something wrong. But at this point you don't know about the creepy things coming ahead that will make Count Alexi look lovely. 

6. The way Marlene looks at the beginning: I'm not talking about her appearance, but the way she chose to use her eyes when she's portraying young Catherine. She has them really wide open, and her pupils go from one side to the other really fast. She stopped doing that when her character became Empress.

5. The bedtime stories they told Catherine when she was a kid: I mean, how would you like go to sleep after hearing about massacres, decapitations and tortures performed by people like Ivan the Terrible? In that sequence, we see what Catherine is being told about: women being raped, women being burned at the stake, a guy tied by his feet and swinging inside a big bell, hitting his head with each side, etc. On a side note, the kid was played by Marlene's daughter, Maria Riva. Oh, and the doll she had in the picture above was from Marlene's collection.

"Well, lieutenant, you're fortunate...very fortunate"
4. The relationships: I know this is true, but it was really creepy to see how everyone behave at  in those times. Young Catherine has to marry, and more importantly, have a heir for the throne ASAP with a man she has never seen, Peter III. The guy has a crazy mistress. His old mother has a lover: Count Alexi. Catherine loves Alexi, but she's disappointed about his affair with the old woman. So he meets a random soldier in the yard and has the famous heir with him. Then she had like 436248723467845683475 lovers. The end.

3. The settings: This is one of the creepiest features of this film. Everything, everything in the old and dark Russian castle is creepy: check, for example, the candlesticks (1), the paintings (2), the statues (3), the chairs (4) and even the the ornaments at the dinner table (5). How would you like to put a skull in it when is not Halloween?

2. The lighting: When you mix all these elements with von Sternberg's photography their creepiness is maximized. He manages to visually concentrate the attention in what she's showing in each scene; he doesn't allow you to think that the real setting is wider than what he's showing you in the moment, and that creates a suffocating atmosphere.

1. Peter III: If it wasn't for this guy, maybe I could have tolerated this film a bit more. But the way he's presented is even more creepy, especially if you're watching the movie from Catherine's point of view. When the young woman is told by Count Alexi how her husband looks, she's anxious to meet him. I mean, seriously:
Would you like him to be better looking than all men, tall and gracious? Well, he is all that and more. He's the handsomest man in the Russian court, tall and formed like a Greek god, a model in fashion and deportment which all of us strive to follow. His eyes are like the blue sky, his hair the colour of ebony. He is stronger than a team of oxen, and sleepless because of his desire to receive you in his arms.
But the creepiness of the moment in which innocent, young Catherine finally meets him, while the old Empress Elizabeth accentuates the fact that they must have a son very soon, can't be explain with words. Watch:

Gosh.Marlene's shocked expression is priceless. LOL. Sam Jaffe portrays Peter showing his teeth like you just saw the whole movie, with his eyes looking in all direction like a crazy man, playing with soldiers, etc.

Well, at least now I can say I've seen 6/7 films starring Marlene and directed by von Sternberg. The Devil is a woman is the only one left :)


  1. Oh, gosh, this film looks so STRANGE! And that movie clip with Peter III...that's "better looking than all men"?!??! *shiver* If I was Catherine I think I would get out of there as soon as possible!

  2. *Adds to LoveFilm queue* It looks creepy but also slightly hilarious!

  3. Solo decirte que me he puesto manos a la obra para intentar ver esta película. Siendo de Marlene seguro que aunque asuste será una delicia para los cinéfilos.

  4. Good Lord, Clara, what a nightmare movie! The video of Sam Jaffe as Peter is downright scary. Can you imagine having to kiss that? Or, God forbid, have a wedding night with it? No wonder the poor woman became so promiscuous. She was probably trying to erase that memory from her mind!

    Loved your creepy, funny post!

  5. Audrey: I KNOW! I just couldn't believe my eyes when I saw him, it was just like a nightmare. Poor Catherine!! I would have killed that liar who described him using antonyms :) Thanks for stopping by!

    Kendra: Nice to see you around, I love your site! Well, good luck with the movie, I think that you should see it with more people to find it funny, watching it alone is just...creepy :)

    Father_Caprio: Bueno, Señor Father_Caprio, ojalá lo pase bien viendo esta película, se supone que es una de las mejores de von Sternberg con Marlene, lamentablemente soy muy cobarde como para apreciar su encanto. Muchas gracias por su comentario y visita :)

    ClassicBecky: OF COURSE I imagined how would it be to kiss that creepy guy, that's why I found it so revolting, especially in a setting like that and after being misled so blatantly...about the wedding night, it seems that Marlene as Catherine spent it...reading, LOL. Thanks for your kind comment, I'm glad you liked my post :)

  6. Yikes! Talk about selling someone a bill of goods! Clara, I'm glad I saw Sam Jaffe in GUNGA DIN and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE before I read your blog post and watched that disturbingly memorable clip when Catherine meets her future hubby! That Von Sternberg had a visual sense that made the Salvador Dali dream sequence in Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND look like the 1946 Bugs Bunny cartoon THE BIG SNOOZE! *Brrr!* What a fascinating blog post -- great job, Clara!

  7. DorianTB: I didn't know Sam Jaffe before watching this, so that scene was really scary!!! LOL, yes, von Sternberg was really a master of lighting and sequence, thanks for stopping by :)



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...