Marlene the Great

4 Nov 2013: The Scarlet Empress (DVD, 1934, Josef von Sternberg)

If one can’t tell from the year, the frequent intertitles, the favoring of expressive visual collages to forward-reverse dialogue exchanges, and the huge cast with lavish costumes and set design that this is basically still a silent film, then ironically it’s the spoken dialogue that will prove it. The most jarring and yet one of the more intriguing features of the film, the voices of the cast of 18th century Eurasian royal characters, with the sole exception of Marlene Dietrich, are the voices of all-American genre-film wiseguys and bad girls, as if the actors and actresses had been transplanted without warning into this movie from the gangster noir they were shooting on another set just across the studio lot. Alongside the unique technical splendor for the eyes, this easy-to-overlook auditory “anachronism” hardly seems worth discussing, but in another, possibly unintentional, sense, it works for and augments the film. In addition to making Dietrich’s lone accent a major signifier that sets her apart from the others, the distinctly “non-period” and domestic feel to most of the foreign voices actually makes the storytelling seem fresher, as if to deliberately spurn the plethora of subsequent historical movies that strive for the utmost in accuracy in order to emphasize the contemporaneity and universality of its behaviors and performances. Besides, the cavalcade of optical stimuli – double exposures, lap dissolves, silhouetted and shadowy compositions, faces shrouded by curtains and draperies, impressively-stocked mobs of peasants, swooping tracking shots over and along palatial celebrations and coups to the blaring tune(s) of Tchaikovsky – makes for an experimental spectacle that towers aesthetically over most similar material. While things are told more with suggestion and framing than with words or explicit actions, the content is as sexual and provocative as any dramatic film of later eras, yet because of its overarching artfulness (as with Barry Lyndon) it can’t be reduced to its prurient elements – despite its adaptation and concentration on Catherine’s diaries, its center is social rather than individual, and it has the force of propaganda yet without any particular ideology to impart except perhaps the glory of monarchic rule. Even then, somehow trumpeted more than this as Catherine ascends to the throne is the ephemeral outside view, momentary spectation of a triumph soon to be extinguished by the continuation of history.

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