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Film / The Scarlet Empress

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The Scarlet Empress is a 1934 film directed by Josef von Sternberg, starring Marlene Dietrich.

It's a Very Loosely Based on a True Story biopic of Catherine the Great of Russia. Dietrich plays a German princess, Sophia, who is sent to Russia to marry Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne. Unfortunately, it turns out that Peter is a goggle-eyed, grinning lunatic, far more interested in playing with toy soldiers and peeping into the bedroom of his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth. Elizabeth for her part is desperate for a male heir to succeed her drooling idiot of a nephew, and has brought Sophia—who takes the more Russian name "Catherine" upon her marriage—to Russia to pop out a baby to maintain the dynasty. Catherine lusts for the handsome Count Alexei, and he for her, but unfortunately for them both Alexei is still sexually servicing Elizabeth. A neglected Catherine has her own sexual awakening, bearing a son that almost certainly isn't Peter's. When Elizabeth finally dies and her idiot nephew becomes idiot Tsar Peter III, Catherine acts to save herself.

This film was completed right under the wire as The Pre-Code Era gave way to The Hays Code. It shows in the narrative, as the film is filled with sexual imagery and themes.


  • all lowercase letters: The entire opening credits, including the title. This was a very innovative thing to do for film credits in the 1930s.
  • Artistic License – History: Lots.
    • "Count Alexei" could be a reference to Elizabeth's long-time lover and probably secret husband count Alexei Razumovski - who in real life was much older than Catherine and had no special relations with her (otherwise she probably would have told us so in her memoirs, which are otherwise pretty honest). She did admit to having three lovers during her husband's lifetime: her first love Sergei Saltykov (who may have been Paul's father, though in reality the situation wasn't as clean-cut and it's possible Peter really did sire him), Polish nobleman Stanislaw Poniatowski (whom she later made the puppet king of Poland) and Orlov, who made it into the movie.
    • The film never even mentions Tsar Ivan VI, overthrown by Elizabeth when he was a child, kept captive in a cell throughout Elizabeth's reign. Catherine had him murdered after she took power.
    • The weird, grotesque statuary in the royal palace is visually quite impressive, but bore no resemblance to the Russian royal court, which was quite polished in the French style.
    • The film gives the impression that Peter's tyrannical, deranged misrule is what got him overthrown. While there's some truth to that, what really got him overthrown was switching sides in the Seven Years' War. Elizabeth had been fighting in the war against the Germans, and winning—Frederick the Great, in fact, appeared to be doomed. When the pro-German Peter succeeded to the throne, he switched sides, and returned to Frederick all the conquests the Russians had made in Prussia. That's what got him overthrown.
  • Blatant Lies: Alexei describes Peter as a tall and handsome prince. When Catherine finds out to her horror that instead he's an inbred halfwit, Alexei says he did his duty for Russia.
  • The Caligula: Peter is given to playing with toy soldiers, and marching his Prussian guards around indoors when it rains. His brief time as tsar seems to be a carnival of misrule, with endless proclamations, and Cossack stormtroopers going around raping and stealing. Peter is also shown taking a potshot out of his window with a rifle and killing a guard, For the Evulz.
  • Call-Back: The empress Elizabeth sets out to destroy Catherine's crush on Alexei. She orchestrates a scene in which she has Catherine blow out the candles in her bedroom, then sends Catherine out the secret passage in the back of her bedroom, so Catherine can open the door for Alexei to come in and have sex with the empress. Catherine's heart is broken. Later, when Catherine has been hardened, she reenacts this scene with Alexei, having him blow out the candles and then sending him out the back way to open the door for Orlov so Orlov can have sex with Catherine.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The opening montage of life in Russia includes people being whipped, someone being stretched on a rack, and a woman tumbling out of an Iron Maiden.
  • Disturbed Doves: Pigeons are sent flying by the bells that ring out Catherine's seizure of power.
  • Fan Disservice: The opening montage meant to show the brutality and brutishness of 18th century Russia includes a brief shot of a woman left topless after soldiers rip off her bodice. Then there's a shot of three topless women being burned at the stake. The first woman is somewhat out of focus and the three other women are shot from further away, but it's still obvious.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls
    • Heavy church bells ring out when Empress Elizabeth dies.
    • Later, the church bells ring out again as the signal for Catherine's coup.
  • Historical In-Joke: Catherine is shown riding a white horse in the scene where her army is overthrowing Peter. There were rumors, which definitely are not true, that Catherine died from having unnatural relations with a horse.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Although the prevailing view of Peter III when this film was made was of an imbecilic, mentally unstable tyrant, modern historians feel that this is an exaggeration; though contemporary accounts confirm that he was quick to anger and had few diplomatic skills, there is evidence that he was more intelligent and observant than his depiction in the film. His reign, though undeniably marked by brutality, also saw proclamations of religious freedom, encouragement of education, abolition of the secret police, and making it illegal for landowners to kill their serfs without going to court.
  • Hollywood Costuming: The outfits are only moderately accurate to 18th century Russia, but still very fancy and elaborate.
  • Incest Subtext: Part of Peter's weird, gross manner is his strange interest in his aunt. When the Empress Elizabeth smacks him down for generally acting like a loony nincompoop, he smells her dress. Later, he tries to be The Peeping Tom, boring a hole in the empress's bedroom wall. But since he's an idiot as well as a pervert he's way too obvious with the drill and Elizabeth and Catherine catch him.
  • Insignia Ripoff Ritual: Peter, who knows Orlov has had sex with his wife, asks what Orlov's rank is. When Orlov says he's a captain, Peter says "you are nothing!" and proceeds to rip off all of Orlov's rank insignia. Orlov soon gets to have the last laugh when Catherine overthrows her husband and Orlov gets to strangle him.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: It's very heavily implied that Peter is not the father of Catherine's baby. The scene where the child (the future Paul I) is born comes immediately after the scene where Catherine has sex with a random guard. Later, a smirking Peter refers to the baby as "an unexpected addition to the family."note 
  • Manchild: Peter is a very creepy version of this, constantly grinning, playing with toy soldiers.
  • Match Cut: An amazing cut shows what passes in Russia for a good time: a man being tortured by being used as a human clapper in a giant bell. The film then cuts from the man swinging back and forth in a bell, to Catherine/Sophia as a young lady swinging on a swing.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: Marlene Dietrich's daughter Maria Riva appears in the opening scene as seven-year-old Sophia.
  • The Mistress: Countess Elizabeth is this for Peter. Although it's hard to tell just how much she qualifies as a mistress, given what a childlike nut job Peter is. Near the end, however, Peter is openly declaring his intention to do away with Catherine and marry the countess Elizabeth.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Elizabeth and Catherine have loads of fur-trimmed dresses.
  • Pretty in Mink: Furs really show off the wealth of the royalty, starting with Alexei presenting Sophia with several wraps of sable to keep her warm on the trip.
  • Royal "We": King Frederick of Prussia uses it when he sends the letter notifying Sophia's family that she's been designated to marry Grand Duke Peter. Notably, Catherine starts using it near the end when she's conspiring to overthrow her husband.
  • Slasher Smile: Peter has a creepy teeth-baring grin on his face all the time.
  • Succession Crisis: Elizabeth, faced with a grinning nincompoop as an heir, is desperate for Catherine to produce a baby. When the empress dies, leaving the grinning nincompoop in charge, Catherine orchestrates a coup.
  • Visual Innuendo: Catherine pulls a straw from a mattress, puts it in her mouth, and tongues it in a very suggestive way when taunting Alexei.