Filmmaker-svengali Josef von Sternberg escalates his obsession with screen legend Marlene Dietrich in this lavish depiction of sex and deceit in the 18th-century Russian court. A self-proclaimed "relentless excursion into ... more »style," the pair's sixth collaboration follows the exploits of Princess Sophia (Dietrich) as she evolves from trembling innocent to cunning sexual libertine Catherine the Great. With operatic melodrama, flamboyant visuals, and a cast of thousands, this ornate spectacle represents the apex of cinematic pageantry by Hollywood's master of artifice.« less
"Of all the Sternberg/Dietrich films this is my favourite, a perverse and decadent vision of history with performances to match the stunningly bizarre art direction.I could hardly wait to open this DVD after I was soundly impressed by Criterion's Third Man disc with it's great print and oodles of extras...Unfortunately this disc has proved the most disappointing DVD I have ever purchased. Alleged to be "A luminous transfer, with restored picture and sound" this only is the case if the restorers were trying to reproduce the standard of a third generation VHS tape. With countless missing frames and splices, frequent audio drops and sizzles and a picture grain which looks like you're watching the film through sand, this is not what I expect from Criterion.Considering the only other Dietrich movie on DVD - the so-so Garden of Allah - is a gorgeous transfer at a bargain price, this is a huge let down.Considering most film collectors purchase Criterion DVD's on the strengh of the label alone this is an outrage that they can release such a low quality disc with such a little amount of extra features to compensate...which was the least they could have done."
Is it or isn't it?
Leealike | London | 02/28/2002
(2 out of 5 stars)
"In a previous review I remarked on what a terrible print of the film was used for this DVD - GREAT FILM, terrible print.Anyone who disagrees, or feels this may now be the best quality print on offer should take a look at the Martin Scorsese/BFI series "A Personal Journey Through American Movies". There you'll find a some gorgeous clips of the Scarlet Empress with sharp audio and virtually perfect picture (no horrible "dupe print" grain or frame damage like this DVD). The film simply shimers. Presumably this was a BFI print, but it may have been from Paramount - either way, a far better print exists and therefore I'm sad to say that this is proof that Criterion have rather short-changed the buying public this time around.
Still, it's better than not having it on DVD at all, isn't it?"
A great film...a lousy transfer.
Leealike | 05/14/2001
(2 out of 5 stars)
"After seeing this film On Turner Classic Movies, several months ago, I became a big fan of its grotesque imagery, and the mysterious, surreal, and almost comical, world it created for the viewer. I found it to be a strange and fascinating film. With that experience, I was more than anxious to get the DVD. So when I read the back of the case, where it said "Luminous transfer, with restored picture and sound", you can imagine how I was salivating, as I ripped the plastic off, and got it in my player. My wife and I prepared to see the magical results of digital technology. Then I hit the PLAY button.My disappointment was beyond words. What we saw was anything but "luminous". It was more like watching a colony of flesh-eating bacteria, wandering all round Marlene Dietrich's face, and a swarm of locusts chewing up the scenery. I kept waitng for everything to calm down, so we could really see the beauty of the film. Occasionally, that happened. But by and large, this was a big let-down.I've seen excellent transfers before, and own them. "Grand Illusion" and "The Seven Samurai" are marvelous examples. But this was nowhere near those efforts. The specks and flecks were too distracting, to fully enjoy this masterpiece. And that's a shame, considering the other otherwise great reputation Criterion has had, in terms of image quality.I'm a little confused about how one customer could say "...the print is stunning". (Maybe that person was "stunned" by how bad it looked.) I sympathize more with the reviewer who thought that Criterion should be held accountable for its mediocre duplication of this film, and the false advertising. You got it right! Five stars for the film, and the Robin Wood essay. One star for the transfer."
Inferior transfer from Criterion compromises masterpiece
Alan A. Pereira | superior, co United States | 06/08/2001
(1 out of 5 stars)
"You'll hear no disagreement from me that The Scarlet Empress is Von Sternberg's masterpiece, abounding in stunning imagery. But I have to express my extreme disappointment with Criterion's transfer. Never have I seen a harsher (some call it sharp), grainier image or a black and white film so lacking in the subtle gradations of light and shade. No adjustment to my excellent TV could correct these deficiencies.I have seen beautiful prints of this film recently on the big screen, and the VHS tape from MCA Home Video is also vastly superior to Criterion's release. The only improvement I can detect on the DVD is a brighter, cleaner soundtrack.Based on my previous satisfaction with Criterion's quality, I have pre-ordered many items from the Criterion Collection in the past without waiting to read the reviews; I simply assumed the quality would be excellent. Now, I am greatly concerned about my outstanding pre-orders with Criterion.To sum up, I believe the Criterion release of The Scarlet Empress compromises the reputation of the film itself and the company that released the DVD. I have contacted Criterion and recommended pulling this release from among their offerings and making every effort to correct its deficiencies if at all possible."
Martin S. Hennessee | Knoxville, TN | 07/13/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
""The Scarlet Empress" may be the most over-the-top spectacle ever filmed, and at the time, it was certainly the costliest. Dietrich plays Prussian princess Sophia Frederika, who is plucked from obscurity to marry the Grand Duke of Russia. This fairy-tale scenario sours when the Duke turns out to be a cruel degenerate, and Sophia (re-named Catherine) learns that her only purpose in the Imperial household is to supply heirs to the throne. Her girlish dreams shattered, she becomes a lusty libertine and ruthless political mover, eventually staging a coup against her husband and becoming the notorious Empress, Catherine the Great.Director von Sternberg throws "historical accuracy" to the winds in order to produce a baroque fantasia filmed in the most stylized manner imaginable, and laced with doses of perversion so bold one wonders how they got past the censors. The film races along in a succession of deliriously stylized set-pieces: hordes of galloping Cossacks; the incredible wedding and drunken banquet that follows; and the apocalyptic coup, led by Catherine in a man's white dress uniform, while "Ride of the Valkeries" blasts on the soundtrack. Von Sternberg's peerless visual style is given free reign, and the results are extraordinary. The lighting and photography are gorgeous, especially in the stunningly beautiful wedding sequence, and Travis Banton's costumes lovingly recreate the decadent grandeur of 18th Century fashion. Most incredible of all are the sets representing the palace at Moscow. These cavernous, candle-lit rooms are stuffed with glittering icons and grotesque statues. So imposing and detailed are these settings that the palace's occupants, in their elaborate costumes and makeup, are sometimes indistinguishable from the décor. "The Scarlet Empress" is energized by a campy sense of humor. Dietrich's journey from wide-eyed nymphet to savvy politician is portrayed with delicious irony. She sashays through the palace, enormous skirts swishing, and wins over the army with an arched eyebrow, a suggestive bon mot, and a bribe or four. John Lodge obviously relishes in his role as Count Alexei, a square-jawed stud who services both the Empress and the Duchess. Of young Catherine's reluctance to commit adultery, he scoffs: "Those ideas are old fashioned, this is the 18th Century!" Louise Dresser gives a wonderful performance as the ill-mannered old Empress, who harangues her half-wit nephew and his reluctant bride with a fishwife's bray. Less humorous, though weirdly fascinating, is Sam Jaffe's portrayal of the repulsive, rodent-like Duke - playing with toy soldiers, marching his real ones through the palace halls, and shooting peasants like pheasants from his bedroom window.Beneath these antics are interesting implications about the link between sexuality and tyranny, and the corrupting influence of power. The film opens with young Sophia (played by Dietrich's daughter) being regaled with tales of the czars, and a montage of rape, pillage and torture illustrates the moppet's fantasy. The film ends with Catherine's triumphant ascension to the throne, but only hints at the depravity and corruption in which she later engaged (though she was also an able and progressive monarch). In all, "The Scarlet Empress" is a unique film, a magnificent product of the studio system, but guided by von Sternberg's keen intelligence and stylish visual flair. A treat."