The Scarlet Empress

Critics Consensus

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



Total Count: 21


Audience Score

User Ratings: 2,230
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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…

    Variety Staff

    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…

    Tony Rayns

    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

  • Jul 06, 2018
    Marlene Dietrich is always a treat, and in this film, the 6th of her 7 collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg, she plays Catherine the Great. The film held my interest, but I have to say, it fell a little short for both Dietrich and von Sternberg. The ornate sets are fabulous, and include Expressionist versions of icons and garish carvings, but von Sternberg relies on them too much. He gives us dramatic action and an overly loud soundtrack, but works from a weak script, and loses the human element in the process. Dietrich flips from being too wide-eyed and open-mouthed in the first half of the film, overplaying innocence, to using her feminine charms to win over support against her husband, Peter III. The film is far from historically accurate, and we also don't see anything of Catherine's astonishing reign, including her love of the arts and her advancement of Russia. What we do see are here responding to "You know that the grand duke isn't exactly pleased with the present state of affairs" by quipping "State of affairs? What affairs? I haven't had an affair for some time" with a sly look in her eyes. It's made clear that she's sleeping around, and in one scene romps happily between two men. Aside from the disservice to Catherine the Great, which I suppose you can ignore because this is Marlene Dietrich after all, even in the context of a vehicle to highlight her eroticism, there is something cold and detached about it, and she's better elsewhere. Worth watching for Dietrich and the wild sets, but temper your expectations.
    Antonius B Super Reviewer
  • Aug 25, 2012
    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. W Super Reviewer
  • May 30, 2011
    The story of Catherine the Great's rise to power in 18th-century Russia seemed unlikely to snare me, but the combination of flamboyant set design, Josef von Sternberg's elegant direction and Marlene Dietrich's charismatic performance make this film fascinating. Add Sam Jaffe's goofy turn as the demented Peter III -- weirdly reminiscent of Harpo Marx -- and "The Scarlet Empress" becomes a can't-miss historical epic. The twisted stone gargoyles incorporated into the walls and chairs of the royal palace are so remarkable that they deserve their own movie. Von Sternberg's loving, soft-focus devotion to Dietrich's face is legendary, and this film captures her beauty in so many ways -- shadows, light and gauzy veils all contribute to the portrait. Meanwhile, Dietrich handles the role's early ingenue phase better than expected (she's all wide eyes and open mouth -- it's like watching Anna Faris's grandmother), though her later transformation to sexual vixen and shrewd leader is somewhat abrupt. One flaw: Von Sternberg's decision to use title cards as transitions seems stale and outdated -- apparently, his mind hadn't entirely left the silent era.
    Eric B Super Reviewer
  • Sep 22, 2010
    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 Super Reviewer

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