The Scarlet Empress (1934)


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


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Movie Info

In this film, Marlene Dietrich plays the German-born Catherine the Great, who is required to marry Russia's mad Grand Duke Peter. As if her marriage isn't torment enough, Catherine must endure the excesses of her new mother-in-law, Empress Elizabeth. Eventually, Catherine finds solace in the form of Count Alexei.


Marlene Dietrich
as Princess Sophia Frederica/Catherine II
John Lodge
as Count Alexei
Louise Dresser
as Empress Elizabeth Petrovna
Sam Jaffe
as Grand Duke Peter
Maria Sieber
as Sophia (as a child)
C. Aubrey Smith
as Prince August
Ruthelma Stevens
as Countess Elizabeth
Olive Tell
as Princess Johanna
Gavin Gordon
as Gregory Orloff
Jameson Thomas
as Lt. Ostvyn
Davison Clark
as Archimandrite Simeon Tevedovsky
Erville Alderson
as Chancellor Alexei Bestuchef
Jane Darwell
as Mlle. Cardell
Edward Van Sloan
as Herr Wagner
John Davidson
as Marquis De La Chetardie
Phillip G. Sleeman
as Count Lestocq
James Marcus
as Innkeeper
Thomas C. Blythe
as Narcissuse
Richard Alexander
as Count Von Breummer
Jay Boyer
as Lackey
Eric Alden
as Lackey
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Critic Reviews for The Scarlet Empress

All Critics (21) | Top Critics (6)

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.

Aug 20, 2014 | Full Review…

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.

Aug 20, 2014 | Full Review…
TIME Magazine
Top 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.

Mar 26, 2009 | Full Review…
Top 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.

Aug 8, 2006 | Full Review…

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

Feb 9, 2006 | Full Review…
Time Out
Top 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.

Jan 20, 2006 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for The Scarlet Empress

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.

Kevin M. Williams
Kevin M. Williams

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...

Stella Dallas
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.

Aj V
Aj V

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.

Cindy I
Cindy I

Super Reviewer

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