The greatest trouble with Scarlet Empress is, at the same time, its greatest weakness. 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.
Marlene Dietrich has never been as beautiful as she is here. Again and again she is photographed in closeups, under veils and behind thin mesh curtains and always breathtakingly. But never is she allowed to become really alive and vital. She is as though enchanted by the immense sets through which she stalks.
She is first picked up as a baby and a cute touch has this sequence being acted by her baby, Maria Sieber. Then she’s the young German princess affianced to the far-off Russian and sent to the foreign court. She is innocent, wide-eyed, unsuspecting. And, of course, she is an easy mark for all the viciousness and grossness she soon finds herself surrounded with. Wedded to the mad crown prince she is slowly driven into the arms of other men.
Film is claimed based on a diary of Catherine II which, perhaps, forgives its choppiness and episodic quality. Sternberg uses a minimum of dialog and goes back to the silent film method of titles to explain action.