Tuesday, March 05, 2002


The juiciest of the collaborations between Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, this truly is one of the strangest movies to ever come out of a major studio. The storyline, of the rise of Catherine the Great of Russia, though not exactly ignored, is almost secondary to the rich visual feast constantly displayed on screen. Much of the time, this felt like an avant-garde movie. Occasionally, it reminded me of VAMPYR, as the narrative's power comes not from dialogue or exposition, but other elements like images, the "choreography" of the actors, and the music. Scarely a moment goes by that doesn't have blaring music (including Wagner and Tchaikovsky) and stunning camerawork.

Dietrich is Catherine, a German princess (I think; I wasn't clear on where she came from) who is chosen to be the wife of Peter III, an "idiot" who will take the throne when his mother dies. Catherine's job is to give Peter a son, but they never consummate the marriage. In the beginning, Catherine has high ideals about being a wife, but after getting pushed around by the Empress and ignored by her husband, she learns how to build her own power base (largely by sleeping with practically the entire Russian army). She provides a male heir (fathered by a soldier), but when she realizes that her own standing and indeed her life itself are in danger, she takes steps to get rid of Peter.

The narrative is always coherent, due partly to the occasional title card that explains what's happening. There are long stretches when there is little or no dialogue; the images really tell the story. An opening montage, where Catherine (as a child) is told horrifying stories of the brutality of past Russian rulers, is stunning, both for the fairly explicit scenes of torture and the bizarre transition at the end, looking up the skirts of the adult Catherine as she sails back and forth on a gigantic swing. The palace sets are lush, filled with carvings (often on the furniture itself) of grotesque and oversized human figures and shot with lots of light and shadows. Sam Jaffe, as Peter III, looks like the idiot child of Harpo Marx and Rose Marie. Dietrich is fabulous, coming off as wide-eyed and innocent in the beginning, and wise, crafty, and sensuous by the end (it's obvious how much Madonna has been influenced by Dietrich's look and manner in this film). The rather hunky John Lodge plays her first post-marriage lover and Louise Dresser is fun as the obnoxious mother. The finale, with dozens of men on horses stampeding around inside the palace, is truly almost a sexual climax. There's lots more to say about the movie, but nothing can substitute for the delirious experience of seeing it.

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