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The Scarlet Empress

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Title: The Scarlet Empress  
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Subject: Josef von Sternberg, Louise Dresser, Colin Tapley, John Davis Lodge, Maria Riva
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The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress
French film poster
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Produced by Emanuel Cohen
Josef von Sternberg
Written by Catherine II (diary)
Manuel Komroff (diary arranger)
Eleanor McGeary
Starring Marlene Dietrich
John Lodge
Sam Jaffe
Louise Dresser
C. Aubrey Smith
Music by Bernhard Kaun
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Edited by Josef von Sternberg
Sam Winston
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
September 15, 1934
Running time
104 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Scarlet Empress is a 1934 historical drama film made by Paramount Pictures 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. Substantial historical liberties are taken.

The film stars von Sternberg's lover Marlene Dietrich as Catherine, supported by John Davis Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, and C. Aubrey Smith. Dietrich's daughter Maria Riva plays Catherine as a child.


  • Plot 1
  • Style 2
  • Response 3
  • Cast (in credits order) 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Sophia Frederica (Dietrich) is the daughter of a minor German prince and an ambitious mother. She is brought to Russia by Count Alexei (Lodge) at the behest of Empress Elizabeth (Dresser) to marry her nephew, Grand Duke Peter (played as a half-wit by Jaffe in his film debut). The overbearing Elizabeth renames her Catherine and reinforces the demand the new bride issue an heir to the throne.

Unhappy in her marriage, Catherine finds solace with the womanizing Alexei, first and foremost a paramour of the much-older Elizabeth. Rebuffed at this discovery, she takes lovers among the Russian Army to court its favor. When the old Empress dies seventeen years into their marriage, Peter ascends to the Russian throne and takes steps against his wife. Soon Catherine plots and exercises a coup, beginning a reign as Empress that will leave her known to history as Catherine the Great.


The film is notable for its attentive lighting and the expressionist art design von Sternberg creates for the Russian palace. 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.[1]


The Scarlet Empress was one of the last mainstream Hollywood motion pictures to be released before the Hays Code was strictly enforced, but was "condemned" by the Catholic Legion of Decency as "morally objectionable". The film depicts topless women being burned at the stake.

The Scarlet Empress remains one of Marlene Dietrich's most frank and suggestive films, portraying Russia's future queen Catherine the Great first as a wide eyed innocent, quickly becoming a sexually-hungry dominatrix. The historic film is filled with erotic images and motifs. It also contains depictions of torture.

Cast (in credits order)


  1. ^ Robin Wood. "The Scarlet Empress". The Criterion Collection Online Cinematheque. 

External links

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