The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress is a 1934 American historical drama film starring Marlene Dietrich and John Davis Lodge 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.

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

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


Princess Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) is the innocent daughter of a minor East Prussian 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 (Sam Jaffe). The overbearing Elizabeth renames her Catherine and repeatedly demands that the new bride produce a male heir to the throne. This is impossible, because Peter never comes near her after their wedding night. He spends all his time with his mistress or his toy soldiers or his live soldiers. Alexei pursues Catherine relentlessly, with no success except for a quick kiss in a barn a week after the wedding, At dinner, he tries to pass a note to Catherine, begging for a few precious seconds with her, but Elizabeth intercepts it. She warns Catherine that Alexei is a womanizing heartbreaker.

That night, Elizabeth sends Catherine down a secret stair to open the door to her lover—without letting him see her. It is Alexei. Shaken—and angry—Catherine hurls a miniature he gave her out the window, then goes out into the garden to retrieve it. A handsome Lieutenant, on duty for the first time, pulls her aside. “If you're the grand duchess, I'm the grand duke.” “ I wish you were!” she cries. “If I were... I wouldn't let you prowl through the night like a pretty little kitten.” Suddenly, she throws her arms around his neck. They kiss, and she surrenders. Months later, all Russia—with the exception of Peter—celebrates as she gives birth to a son. Elizabeth promptly takes over his care and sends the exhausted Catherine a magnificent necklace. Catherine refuses to speak to Alexei.

A text panel reads “...Catherine discarded her youthful ideals and turned to the ambitious pursuit of power.” The Archimandrite is worried. Elizabeth is dying. Peter is insane and plans to remove Catherine from court, perhaps by killing her. This is a very different woman, self-assured, sensual and cynical. Now that she has learned what Russia expects, she plans to stay. He offers his help, but she demurs, smiling. “ I think I have weapons that are far more powerful than any political machine”.

Catherine remains serene in the face of Peter's threats. She plays blind man's bluff with her ladies in waiting, lavishing kisses on the officers, until the bells toll for the empress' passing. Peter taunts Elizabeth's corpse as she lies in state: “It's my turn now!” On screen: “And while his Imperial Majesty, Peter the III terrorized Russia, Catherine coolly added the army to her list of conquests.” She inspects the officers of Alexei's pet regiment, singling out Lieutenant Dmitri (the man from the garden) and borrowing one of Alexei's decorations to reward Dmitri “for bravery in action.” Dmitri's Captain also attracts her attention. She promises to explain everything to Alexei that evening. In her bedroom, she tells him to send everyone away and return. She toys with him and at last sends him downstairs to open the door for the man waiting there. It is the Captain. Alexei remembers and understands.

At dinner, the Archimandrite collects alms for the poor. Catherine strips her arm of bracelets. The Captain adds a handful of gems, Alexei a purse, the Chancellor a single coin, Peter's mistress a scrap of food. Peter slaps his face. Peter proposes a toast the most charming woman in Russia, his mistress. Catherine refuses. Peter calls her a fool and she leaves with the Captain. Peter issues a proclamation that Catherine is dying.

In the middle of the night, an officer wakens Catherine. In uniform, she flees the palace with her loyal troops. Alexei murmurs, “Exit Peter the Third, Enter Catherine the Second.” In a flurry of banners they ride through the night, gathering men to her cause. In the cathedral, the Archimandrite blesses her and Catherine herself rings the bell that triggers a citywide peal. The guard at Peter's door tells him “There is no emperor, only an empress” and kills him. Catherine and her troops ride up the stairs in the palace, thundering into the throne room as pealing bells are joined by the 1812 Overture.

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]

The Scarlet Empress was one of the later mainstream Hollywood motion pictures to be released before the Hays Code was enforced. Near the beginning of the film, young Sophia's tutor reads to her about “Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible and other Russian Czars and Czarinas who were hangmen,” introducing a nightmarish and disturbingly explicit sequence of tortures and executions.


New York Times reviewer Dave Kehr described the film, with its "[metaphysical treatment" of the subject, as clearly superior to the contemporaneous rival Catherine biopic: The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934) by Alexander Korda.[9]

Leonard Maltin gives the picture three out of four stars: “Von Sternberg tells the story... in uniquely ornate fashion, with stunning lighting and camerawork and fiery Russian music. It's a visual orgy; dramatically uneven, but cinematically fascinating.”[10]

In 1998, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader included the film in his unranked list of the best American films not included on the AFI Top 100.[11]

In a 2001 review of the film for the Criterion Collection, film scholar Robin Wood placed it in the context of the collaboration between Von Sternberg and Dietrich:

“The connecting theme of all the von Sternberg/Dietrich films might be expressed as a question: How does a woman, and at what cost, assert herself within an overwhelmingly male-dominated world? Each film offers a somewhat different answer (but none very encouraging), steadily evolving into the extreme pessimism and bitterness of The Scarlet Empress and achieving its apotheosis in their final collaboration The Devil Is a Woman. This resulted in the (today extraordinary) misreading of the films (starting from The Blue Angel) as “films about a woman who destroys men.” Indeed, one might assert that it is only with the advent of radical feminism that the films (and especially the last two) have become intelligible”.[12]

The Guardian's historical films reviewer Alex von Tunzelmann credits the film with "racy" entertainment value (grade: "B"), but she severely discredits its historical depth and accuracy (grade: "D−"), giving the film historical credence only for creating a "vaguely accurate impression" of Catherine's relationship with Peter, dismissing the rest as the director's fantasies and infatuations.[13]


  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. ISBN 9781136592881. Retrieved 21 October 2017 – via Google Books. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  7. ^ Leonard, Suzanne; Tasker, Yvonne (20 November 2014). Fifty Hollywood Directors. Routledge. ISBN 9781317593935. Retrieved 21 October 2017 – via Google Books. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  8. ^ Robin Wood. "The Scarlet Empress". The Criterion Collection Online Cinematheque.
  9. ^ Dave Kehr, "Alexander Korda’s Historical Films Hold a Fun House Mirror Up to the Present," May 6, 2009, New York Times, retrieved February 20, 2020
  10. ^ "The Scarlet Empress (1934) - Overview -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2020-05-09.
  11. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan (June 25, 1998). "List-o-Mania: Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love American Movies". Chicago Reader. Archived from the original on April 13, 2020.
  12. ^ Wood, Robin. "The Scarlet Empress". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2020-05-10.
  13. ^ von Tunzelmann, Alex "Reel history: The Scarlet Empress (1934)...This week: peasants on iron maidens and equine erotica in a biopic of Catherine the Great," July 14, 2008, The Guardian, retrieved February 20, 2020

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