The Scarlet Empress
Marlene Dietrich stars in Josef von Sternberg’s feverishly debauched biopic as the spoiled princess Sophia Frederica, who grows up being groomed for greatness and yearning for a handsome husband. Sent to Russia to marry the Grand Duke Peter, she is horrified to discover that her betrothed is a half-wit and her new home a macabre palace where depravity rules. Before long, however, she is initiated into the sadistic power politics that govern the court, paving the way for her transformation into the imperious libertine Catherine the Great. A lavish spectacle in which von Sternberg’s domineering visual genius reaches new heights of florid extravagance, The Scarlet Empress is a perversely erotic portrait of a woman—and a movie star—capable of bringing legions to heel.
The fifth dual-layer disc of Criterion’s box set Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Hollywood presents The Scarlet Empress, upgrading over Criterion’s previous DVD edition, in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Encoded at 1080p/24hz high-definition the master comes from a new 4K digital restoration, sourced from a 35mm nitrate print.
The presentation is one of the better ones in the set in regard to restoration efforts, though some damage remains: there are some tram lines, faint scratches, a few bits of debris, and so forth, all of which is quite minimal and rarely obtrusive. This is still a marked improvement over Criterion’s original DVD edition, which (despite the claim of having undergone a new restoration) was littered with source related issues and was probably one of the bigger disappointments I had come across at the time. The image is also far sharper (despite the use of soft focus in places) and it renders the film’s grain in an infinitely better way (more natural and less like noise).
The digital presentation is solid with no issues standing out. Contrast is excellent, delivering deep blacks and nice whites, and the gray levels blend beautifully, all of which lends to extraordinary shadows. It looks gorgeous and I’m so happy to finally have an upgrade over the old DVD.
The lossless PCM 1.0 mono presentation again shows its age with noticeable background noise, but dialogue is clear and music sounds good without getting all edgy during the higher moments. This also offers an improvement over the original DVD, which was far noisier and edgier, with some pops and drops.
Criterion’s six-disc set presents several supplements spread across each film, some specific to the disc’s respective film and others working as overviews of their work. This review will focus specifically on the supplements available on The Scarlet Empress’ disc.
This disc only features one significant extra, which is a wonderful 29-minute interview with Marlene Dietrich, done just after she had completed a live performance. The interview works as a bit of a retrospective with Dietrich looking back on her career, with a lot of time devoted to talking about her work with Von Sternberg and how she was discovered for The Blue Angel. Though it’s a fairly dull set-up for an interview Dietrich is still a captivating subject and I was honestly surprised by how humble she ends up being (she talks about how that comes from her upbringing). Really amazing find on Criterion’s part.
Sadly, Criterion ports nothing from the original DVD. There wasn’t much on that edition, but the biggest loss (outside of a small gallery and the essays found in the disc’s insert) was easily a 20-minute interview with Von Sternberg, which also has the director show off his techniques for lighting. This was an incredible feature and its loss is pretty big here. It was from a BBC program, and one thing I’ve noticed with a lot of Blu-ray upgrades/reissues (like Straw Dogs, The River, Short Cuts, and others) the BBC programs from the previous DVD editions aren’t getting carried over, so I assume Criterion is unable to relicense the material or the costs were prohibitive.
Thankfully the Dietrich interview is great!
Feature-wise it’s one of the slimmer discs in the set, only featuring an interview with Dietrich, while also losing the features found on Criterion’s original DVD edition. Thankfully the new restoration and final presentation looks amazing.