The Scarlet Empress

(1934) Josef von Sternberg. DVD.

The scarlet is both of bloodshed and the dishabille of depraved royalty.... As young Catherine swings playfully in the family garden, the peasants of Mother Russia swing too, as the enslaved human clappers of gigantic brass bells.

An orgiastic pageant of exotic torture sets the premise of Catherine's turbulent, sex-jolted reign. Mother Russia, the old cantankerous Empress, captures Catherine and mates the girl with Russia's only heir, an "imbecilic" son who closely resembles Harpo Marx, except this imbecile is artless. Catherine is to produce a male offspring who will vindicate Russia - something Mother's womb was never able to do.  Disgusted by the imbecile, Catherine calls forth buck soldiers to take the secret back-end passageway to her bedchambers.

Catherine motivates her power and sexuality in defiance of history’s contrived grotesque of procreation.  The movie's environs, like the portals of a Gothic cathedral, are crammed with mutant gargoyles and jaw-gaped, vortex-pained ikons.  Viral infectors of the dreamscape Mother Russia has birthed, a nation gone psychotic, the enforcer of mindbending atrocities against the peasant masses.  When Catherine leads the revolt and lays siege to the royal fortress, she wears an Art Deco pantsuit and helmet, and rides a white horse.

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