Friday, October 11, 2013

Josef von Sternberg | The Scarlet Empress

bell, candle, and net
by Douglas Messerli
Eleanor McGeary (loosely based on the diary of Catherine II, as organized by Manuel Komroff), Josef von Sternberg (director) The Scarlet Empress / 1934

Let us start with Josef von Sternberg’s own famous description of his 1934 film, The Scarlet Empress: [It is] “a relentless excursion into style, which, taken for granted in any work of art, is considered to be unpardonable in this medium.” Treating even his beloved Dietrich as “a bit of color on a canvas,” in this, his most extreme “excursion,” the actor indeed becomes an “object,” as the director liked to describe his performers. Dietrich’s performance, against such a heated-up collage of images, is perhaps the most restrained of her career.      

     The Russian setting of most of the film has clearly sprung from the head of the wild interior decorator-side of Sternberg (since he has taken credit for almost all aspects of the picture): absurdly grand spaces of a palace filled with grotesque statuary created by Swiss artist Peter Ballbusch, huge creaking doors that take a small army to open and close, acres and acres of candles, and various forms of netting—the generally-preferred scrim through which Sternberg’s camera peered into his actor’s faces and actions. When the film orchestra is not booming out strains of Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and other orchestral war-horses of music, Sternberg lets loose with volleys of bells, chiming out history and particular events. Into this mad expressionist-like setting, Sternberg tosses his mad Grand Duke Peter (played a bit like Harpo Marx by the leering, slobbering Sam Jaffe), the almost equally mad Empress Elizaveta Petrovna (Louise Dresser playing the Empress as if she just come from the set of Mammy), the Count Alexey Razumovsky (John Davis Lodge, with a mane so long he is surely the envy of all the woman cast) and, in ridiculous Spanish-gypsy like costume, Peter’s improbable mistress, Elizabeta Vorontsova (Ruthelma Stevens). Against all this over-the-top, purposely theatrical chicanery, Dietrich’s beauty and partially restrained presence makes it appear, at times, as if she had somehow walked into the wrong picture; certainly Sternberg’s camera, lovingly embracing her, seemingly wonders how this breathtaking creature even got there!

      Although he has partly prepared us for this insane world of gothic horror in the very first scene of the film—where the country horse doctor quietly reads for the future Catherine Czarist tales of torture, which Sternberg backs up with a spinning montage of stock visions of individuals upon the wrack, men and women being set afire, and a man forced to bodily serve as the gong of a giant bell—nothing might have quite led to expect the hoot a film that follows. And, indeed, the film—much of it—is intentionally funny and sexually witty, as Catherine, feeling betrayed by her would-be lover, the Count, herself seduces a night-time guard, bears a male heir, and, man by man, takes on the entire army. Surely this film must have been the very last to escape the sweaty hands of the Hays office, established the same year, allowing Sternberg to, at moments, serve up a kind of bacchanalian orgy that even Jack Smith (who satirized works such as this in his Flaming Creatures) cannot quite match.

      Yet beyond all of this “over the top” theatrical history wherein Catherine II, as we know, gradually takes control of the entire Russian empire, is a work a startling visual originality and beauty. “The ideal film,” Sternberg argued, would be “entirely synthetic,” and in The Scarlet Empress he almost achieves that. The world portrayed here has much to do with the “real” as Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Grey, wherein the realist painting gradually transmogrifies to represent all the inner evil of its central character. I might argue that Sternberg, himself, is a product of the fin de siècle (surely his love of dramatic lighting, lace, and nets and arcane knowledge suggest this) were it not for his near-complete embracement of German Expressionism and, in his vast mise on scene montages, his relationships with Russian and Italian Futurism. There is perhaps no Hollywood director—if you can describe him as such—except maybe for Fritz Lang who so embraced the images of then-contemporary art. Expressionism, Cubism, the collage of Germans and Russians, the street images of the American Ash Can School—all make an appearance in Sternberg’s films, most of them showing up here.

           That he could, like James Whale in Frankenstein, encompass all of these quite serious concerns within the structure of what he knew as also a mostly comic (although some might describe it as sardonic) vision within a medium that was gradually delimiting and closing down its visual perspectives is quite astonishing. Very few great directors did not find themselves at odds with the fussy studio system, but that Sternberg could create such an imaginary farce is something near to magic. All right, if, according to the standard “Bell, Book, and Candle” requirement for witchcraft, Sternberg seldom in this film took out the book (only the Russian Orthodox Bible appears), it is only because there are no readers in his tale but the Count and Catherine; the culture at large, perhaps like that of the studio heads, is illiterate. Yet he has certainly created magic in The Scarlet Empress through bell, candle, and net.

Los Angeles, October 11, 2013

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