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The Scarlet Empress (Catherine the Great)

The Scarlet Empress (Catherine the Great) (1934)



Average Rating: 9.2/10
Reviews Counted: 20
Fresh: 18 | Rotten: 2

Complex, visually stunning, and breathtakingly intense, The Scarlet Empress overpowers its flaws with a confident vigor befitting its legendary subject.


Average Rating: 10/10
Critic Reviews: 6
Fresh: 4 | Rotten: 2

Complex, visually stunning, and breathtakingly intense, The Scarlet Empress overpowers its flaws with a confident vigor befitting its legendary subject.



liked it
Average Rating: 3.9/5
User Ratings: 2,152

My Rating

Movie Info

Of the two 1934 film versions of the life of Russia's Catherine the Great, Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress was the most opulent and exotic. Marlene Dietrich plays the German-born Catherine, who is required to marry Russia's mad Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe, decked out in a Harpo Marx wig). As if her joke of a marriage isn't torment enough, Catherine must endure the excesses of her new mother-in-law, Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser). Eventually, Catherine finds solace -- and romance --

May 8, 2001

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All Critics (20) | Top Critics (6) | Fresh (18) | Rotten (2) | DVD (7)

Josef von Sternberg's 1934 film turns the legend of Catherine the Great into a study of sexuality sadistically repressed and reborn as politics, thus anticipating Bertolucci by three decades.

August 20, 2014 Full Review Source: Chicago Reader
Chicago Reader
Top Critic IconTop Critic

A tedious hyperbole in which Director Josef von Sternberg achieved the improbable feat of burying Marlene Dietrich in a welter of plaster-of-paris gargoyles and galloping cossacks.

August 20, 2014 Full Review Source: TIME Magazine
TIME Magazine
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Josef von Sternberg becomes so enamoured of the pomp and flash values that he subjugates everything else to them. That he succeeds as well as he does is a tribute to his artistic genius and his amazingly vital sense of photogenic values.

March 26, 2009 Full Review Source: Variety
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Running a solid hundred minutes, the film first shocks and stimulates the imagination, and then, lacking the dramatic skill to refresh its audiences, becomes steadily duller.

August 8, 2006 Full Review Source: New York Times
New York Times
Top Critic IconTop Critic

The decor and costumes, and the mise-en-scÚne that deploys them, have never been equaled for expressionist intensity.

February 9, 2006 Full Review Source: Time Out
Time Out
Top Critic IconTop Critic

The film tells the story of Catherine the Great as a bizarre visual extravaganza, combining twisted sexuality and bold bawdy humor as if Mel Brooks had collaborated with the Marquis de Sade.

January 20, 2006 Full Review Source: Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Top Critic IconTop Critic

They don't get much better than this.

August 20, 2014 Full Review Source: Radio Times
Radio Times

Not the most successful of Dietrich and von Sternburg's collaborations but interesting nonetheless.

August 20, 2014 Full Review Source: Film4

Overstuffed with indulgent, idiosyncratic performances using every accent from Budapest to Brooklyn, the film is like a flower so strange and so beautiful it could only have germinated in the hothouse environment of a major Hollywood studio.

August 24, 2010 Full Review Source: Not Coming to a Theater Near You
Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Von Sternberg's most realized film that combines a brilliant spectacle of royal pomp and mise-en-scene with Harpo Marx-like silent comedy.

February 14, 2006 Full Review Source: Ozus' World Movie Reviews
Ozus' World Movie Reviews

It's a complex, poetic, fantastical, and truly great movie.

June 13, 2005 Full Review Source: Combustible Celluloid
Combustible Celluloid

Unhinged and marvelous; it walks a thin line between melodrama and farce.

July 9, 2004
F5 (Wichita, KS)

A thrilling historical pageant, featuring one of the most mind-blowing mises-en-scenes ever created for a film, plus iconic performances by Dietrich, Jaffe, and Dresser.

August 17, 2003
Nick's Flick Picks

Sternberg belongs in the very top ranks of any list of the greatest filmmakers of all time -- and nowhere is this more apparent than here.

February 2, 2003 Full Review Source: Mountain Xpress (Asheville, NC)
Mountain Xpress (Asheville, NC)

The filmmaking is invigorating, with some of the images standing out as originals to this day.

March 5, 2002 Full Review Source:

A dense, visually astounding portrait of a woman evolving from an innocent, inexperienced, and idealistic girl to a shrewd, calculating empress.

June 13, 2001 Full Review Source: Q Network Film Desk
Q Network Film Desk

For lovers of cinema, this film is practically a religious experience. Like Griffith's Intolerance, Von Stroheim's Greed or Ophuls's Lola Montes, this is one of those masterpieces which contemporaries just couldn't grip.

January 1, 2000 Full Review Source: TV Guide's Movie Guide
TV Guide's Movie Guide

Audience Reviews for The Scarlet Empress (Catherine the Great)

As opulent and decadent as can be imagined, Von Sternberg's vision of early court life is suffused in shadows and grotesqueries unlike most films of this sort, bringing to mind the axiom of absolute power corrupting absolutely. The story's not so good, but the imagery will stay with you.
August 25, 2012

Super Reviewer

what a spectacle this is. the sets are just outrageous. could've used a better script perhaps but definitely worth watching for the fantastic art direction alone. and then there's dietrich...
September 1, 2011
Stella Dallas

Super Reviewer

This was a good historical drama, I didn't know much about Catherine before, but this movie didn't tell me everything I wanted to know. It only covers her youth and the time she marries into the Russian royalty, but we don't get to see how she handles the country as the new empress. It was slightly better than I expected, but it let me down in the end.
September 22, 2010

Super Reviewer

A film I've wanted to see for ages and, while it was worth seeing, didn't quite hold up to my expectations. Don't know how historically accurate it is, and I guess that doesn't really matter. I did think it was kinda funny that the last scene was of Catherine with her horse inside the castle, hinting at the urban legend of how she died (not going to go into that...look it up). I can say that Dietrich was breathtaking as Catherine. But also worth watching was Sam Jaffe as the mentally off King. The film is definitely a feast for the eyes. All in all, a good but not great film.
January 19, 2010

Super Reviewer

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