Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Scarlet Empress (1934)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions
The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

In Josef von Sternberg's startling, dark, daring, visually opulent, hauntingly expressionistic, and mostly fictional, unorthodox biopic of Prussian-born Princess Sophia Frederica - a semi-erotic tale of 18th century Russia; it marked the sixth (of seven) film collaborations between Sternberg and Dietrich:

  • the opening montage of sado-masochistic, depraved tortures and brutalities in Tsarist Russia - told as a bedtime story to young Sophia Frederica (Maria Sieber/Riva, Marlene Dietrich's own daughter), including views of a woman strapped to a revolving wheel, multiple axe-executions and beheadings, a group of bound topless women burnt at the stake, and an upside-down male torture victim used as a giant bell-clapper
  • the scene of young, naive, tremulous bride-to-be Princess (Marlene Dietrich) brought on a seven-week journey to Russia for an arranged marriage to Grand Duke Peter III (Sam Jaffe in his film debut), nephew of the unpleasant, domineering Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Louise Dresser); the Empress hoped to improve the royal blood line by having Frederica marry her no-good nephew ("...pushed like a brood mare into the preparations for her marriage to a royal half-wit"), and her first meeting with Peter
  • the scenes of an awed 15 year old Sophia looking in shock-amazement at everything during her first meeting with Peter: the gothic imagery of giant, ghoulish gargoyle-like statues each holding a candle, various religious icons, the 20-foot-high, oversized carved wooden doors (requiring many women to open), and her revulsion at her bumbling, idiotic, grinning, and childlike husband-to-be in an arranged marriage, who blurted out: "I want to play with my toys!"
  • the bravura marriage ceremony sequence, with the veil-covered, stone-faced Sophia Frederica looking trapped and overwhelmed amidst bearded Orthodox priests with crucifixes and waving incense - and everyone holding candles, including Sophia with one flickering close to her face
  • the slowly-transformed character of Russia's queen into a sexually-depraved dominatrix ruler with a whip, and her many romantic and flirtatious involvements with men in her entourage, mostly with Russian emissary Count Alexei (John Lodge), an opportunistic womanizer, and Captain Orloff (Gavin Gordon)
  • Catherine's clandestine meeting with Count Alexei in the stable barn, where she seductively kept replacing a piece of straw between her lips and warned: "If you come closer, I'll scream"; he removed every strand and then coyly answered: "It is easier for you to scream without a straw in your mouth," before kissing her; she was startled by the whinnying of a horse mid-kiss and ran off
  • the scene of her shock at watching a giant drill bit penetrating and emerging from the eye of a mural painting - Peter had drilled a hole in the wall to spy on his Aunt's bedroom
  • in another scene of adulterous seduction, she met up with an anonymous palace guard, Lt. Dmitri (Gerald Fielding) on his first night of duty, who was astonished to learn who she was: ("If you are the Grand Duchess, then I am the Grand Duke...On a night like this, anything might happen - if I'm fortunate"). She mentioned that he was "very fortunate" and clasped her hands behind him (with extended fingers) as she embraced and surrendered to him - before a fade to black
  • the scene of her appraisal of her troops (wearing a fur-hat), with her swaggering, flirtatious assertions to Captain Orloff, and then her singling-out of Lieutenant Dmitri - one of her attractive, virile soldiers: "Now there's another good-looking soldier....And your duties, Dmitri?...It must be cold at night, sometimes?...Anyway, I'm certain you're very efficient, Lieutenant"; she presented him with a medal and pinned it on his chest: "For bravery in action. See that you do justice to it in future emergencies" - he was most likely the one who had borne her a child!
  • she also appeared that evening with a gauzy veil over herself before allowing Count Alexei to vow his love for her: ("Catherine, I love you, worship you"); when he leaned down to kiss her behind the veil, she gripped the veil with her fist and drew it aside to reveal their affectionate kiss, and then asked for a favor from the scorned Count - to open her secret door for another military figure - Captain Orloff
  • in the bell-ringing conclusion, Catherine (in the white uniform of a male Cossack) had engineered a coup d'etat with the military and Orloff, coordinated the downfall and assassination of Peter III, and was crowned as Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia; the film's last lines were delivered by Count Orloff to Emperor Peter who had been dethroned: "There is no emperor. There is only an empress"


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