The Red Empress

The Red Empress (The Scarlet Empress) is an American film directed by Josef von Sternberg , released in 1934 . The film is the sixth of the Marlene Dietrich couple- Josef von Sternberg, after The Blue Angel and Burning Hearts in 1930 , Agent X 27 (1931) , Shanghai Express (1932) and Blonde Venus (1933) .


In 1744, in Russia , Princess German Sophia Frederica must marry Grand Duke Peter III of Russia , nephew of the Empress Elizabeth re . Frustrated by the lack of scale of her husband, she seduced Count Alexei and Captain Orlov . On the death of the Empress, she had her husband murdered, and thus became Catherine II , empress of all the Russias.


The film, released in full depression in the United States , suffered a commercial and critical failure, probably because of its harshness and its dark side, in total opposition to the pomp of sets and costumes. [ref. necessary] It has since been ranked among the masterpieces of cinema.

Technical sheet

  • Title: The Red Empress
  • Original title: The Scarlet Empress
  • Director: Josef von Sternberg
  • Scenario: Komroff Manuel  (in) , according to the newspaper Catherine
  • Photography: Bert Glennon
  • Editing: Sam Winston, Josef von Sternberg (uncredited)
  • Artistic direction: Hans Dreier (uncredited)
  • Costumes: Travis Banton (uncredited)
  • Music (arrangements): W. Franke Harling , John Leipold , Bernhard Kaun (uncredited), Oscar Potoker  ( uncredited) and Milan Roder (uncredited)
  • Visual Effects: Gordon Jennings (uncredited)
  • Production: Josef von Sternberg (uncredited)
  • Production Company: Paramount Pictures
  • Country of origin: United States
  • Format: Black and White – 1.37: 1 – 35mm – Sound: Mono ( Western Electric Noiseless Recording )
  • Genre: Historical drama
  • Duration: 104 minutes
  • Release dates: UK ,(first in London ); France , ; United States ,


  • Marlene Dietrich : Catherine II
  • John Lodge : Count Alexey
  • Sam Jaffe : the Grand Duke Pierre
  • Louise Dresser : Empress Elizabeth Petrovna
  • C. Aubrey Smith : Prince August
  • Gavin Gordon : Captain Orlov
  • Olive Tell : Princess Joanna Elisabeth
  • Erville Alderson : Chancellor Alexey Bestuzhev-Ryumin
  • Hans Heinrich von Twardowski : Ivan Shuvalov
  • Maria Riva : Catherine (child)
  • Ruthelma Stevens : Countess Elizabeth Alexeievna
  • Davison Clark : Archimandrite Simeon Todorsky
  • Philip Sleeman : Count Jean Armand de Lestocq
  • Marie Wells : Marie Tshoglokof
  • Gerald Fielding : Lieutenant Dimitri
  • among the uncredited actors:
  • John Davidson : Marquis of the Chetardie
  • Jane Darwell : Miss Cardell
  • Harry Woods : the first doctor

Reviews [ change | change the code ]

At the release of the film

In its release, The Scarlet Empress collected devastating criticisms 1 .

Homer Dickens wrote in 1974 that the critics, when it came out, “described the film as a delusional spectacle, a hallucination, an outrageous sophistication. ” Thierry de Navacelle adds in 1982 that critics ” tax the film of bad taste, madness, pretension and ridicule. ”

For Time Magazine , the film is a “heavy hyperbole; director Josef von Sternberg has achieved the incredible feat of burying Marlene Dietrich under a heap of gargoyles in plaster of Paris and galloping Cossacks (…) The worst sequence is that where, riding a white horse, Marlene Dietrich climbing degrees leading to the palace. ”

The critic of the New York Herald Tribune judges the film “flat, mannered and ostentatious. ” 2


Over time, many critics have changed their point of view on this film, as Dietrich writes in his memoirs in the late 1970s: ” The Red Empress is now a classic. In 1934, he did not achieve the expected success. We all know now that this movie was way ahead of its time. This is probably why it is screened in film libraries and art house cinemas, but also that millions of viewers around the world, in rooms of exclusive premieres continue to see it. Young generations love the Red Empress. Teenagers write to me, tell me about the costumes … especially my boots – and, on top of that, they were white! – on the spectacular side of the work, which they seem to have perfectly understood … much better than the audience then. They are also fascinated by the artistic direction naturally assumed by von Sternberg. » 3

Vincent Pinel : “Sternberg rewrites history for Marlene’s greatest glory. (…) This very fascinating Baroque delirium is not dedicated to the memory of Catherine II but celebrates especially the myth of Marlene. In this area, it is Sternberg’s greatest achievement. ” 4

Jacques Siclier : “Marlene triumphant, Catherine of Russia carried by the apotheosis of a myth; the reality of the imagination. » 5

Jean Tulard : “A baroque delirium, a plastic masterpiece: immensity of the sets, beauty of the pictures (the face of Catherine at the wedding ceremony), constant inventions of the scenario that give Sam Jaffe (…) the occasion of a dazzling composition. (…) Probably the best film of the couple Sternberg-Dietrich, but that was a big financial failure for the Paramount. ” 6

Thierry de Navacelle : “This is an extravagant and magnificent film, animated by a powerful breath, due to a sort of release of Sternberg in the movement. (…) Here, thanks to the camera, editing and its famous superimpositions, Sternberg transports us in a few seconds to the very heart of Russia, with all that it involves excessive and excessive. The artistic director Hans Dreier accomplished wonders to restore all the fantastic of this palace probably totally imaginary. This is a show where the richness of the image and sets, and mastery of the staging are a little too much to crush the actors. ” 7

Around the film

  • This film can be considered as Paramount’s response to the MGM , which has just released a historical film with the alleged “rival” Marlene, Greta Garbo , entitled The Queen Christine (1933).
  • Catherine of Russia is, like Marlene Dietrich, of German origin, which incited even more the star to interpret it.
  • It is Marlene Dietrich’s own daughter, Maria Riva , who plays the role of Catherine the child; this is the first film of Sam Jaffe, which will later turn in When the city sleeps and Ben-Hur .
  • Maria said that the scene where her mother must pull the rope ringing the bell announcing his takeover was shot fifty times, until the rope lacerating blood thighs of the actress 1 .
  • The film is the sixth and penultimate collaboration between the director and the actress he revealed.
  • The tensions / reconciliations were numerous during the shooting, between the pygmalion and his muse. For example, during the filming of the last scene (final plan of the Great Catherine), “Dietrich and von Sternberg came furious on the set and mutually abused each other. (…) Von Sternberg was a “tyrant”, a ” Jewish Hitler “, a “dirty little American”, a “sadistic monster”! : that was Dietrich’s version. As for her, she “was unable to do anything right,” “the simplest scenes were beyond her means,” and she “screamed as soon as something did not suit her! This was von Sternberg’s version. » 1

Notes and references

  1. ↑ a , b and c Maria Riva , Marlene Dietrich by her daughter , Flammarion 1992, p.  356 , 323 and 321.
  2. ↑ Homer Dickens, Marlene Dietrich , Editions Henri Veyrier, 1974. p.115.
  3. ↑ Marlene D Marlene Dietrich , Grasset, 1984, p. 94 and 95.
  4. ↑ Vincent Pinel, The Century of Cinema , Bordas Publishing, 1994 p.  132 and 154.
  5. ↑ Quoted by Vincent Pinel, The Century of Cinema , Bordas Publishing, 1994 p.  155 .
  6. ↑ Jean Tulard, movie guide , Bouquins collection, Editions Robert Laffont, 2002, Volume 2, p.  1510 .
  7. ↑ Thierry Navacelle, Sublime Marlene Ramsay Publishing, 1982, p.  63 , 64.

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