“The hallmark of camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers. Camp is the outrageous aestheticism of Sternberg’s American movies with Dietrich” – Susan Sontag
If you read Josef von Sternberg’s Fun in a Chinese Laundry, his vastly entertaining autobiography, you would think the director a control freak to end all control freaks.
For instance, he insists that in all the seven films he and Marlene Dietrich made together, he created her every gesture, expression and movement. She was merely a little German puppet. It was not quite true, though she never had the same feeling for any of her other directors.
Susan Sontag was right in essence to say that Sternberg and Dietrich combined to produce camp, but The Scarlet Empress is so much more than that – it is great cinema. Sternberg once said that he would not mind showing his films upside down because their justification was not the story, the screenplay or the acting but “the phenomenon of visual style”. You could say that he wrote with the camera – and he often achieved poetry.
The Scarlet Empress can certainly be termed the work of a visual poet. And though no one would claim this tale of Catherine the Great, child and woman, is historically accurate, its mixture of legend, romance and fairytale leaves camp far behind.
In the film, nothing is quite what it seems, to either Catherine or us. Her kindly doctor turns out also to be the public hangman. Innocent little Catherine asks: “Can I become a hangman some day?” He then reads to her about terrible tortures that Sternberg illustrates as if turning the pages of a book. In the last image, the hangman pulls on a bell rope, and the clapper is a naked man, dangling by his feet.
The film is full of Sternberg’s obsessive, and often malicious, melancholy. There seems to be nothing in this world that is not corruptible. Catherine’s fate pursues her, making her ambition fruitless and her attempts at love impossible. No matter how banal the dialogue, there is a constant sense that Sternberg’s purpose is not just to tell a story but to decorate it so that its meaning becomes crystal clear.
Of course Dietrich looks superb, as she always did for Sternberg – he knew he had found someone the camera loved. It was indeed what he called “a dramatic encounter with light”, illustrating the life and times of a woman who had to become ruthless, even compared with the men around her.
Some think the film an allegory about Hollywood – about a woman groomed for stardom by her mother, given a new image, presented to the public, and finally dehumanised, imprisoned by her own image. And by associating Catherine with a white horse, Sternberg may have had in mind the legend of her death, attempting intercourse with a stallion.
But this is mere conjecture. The film remains, like all Sternberg’s best work, beautiful, ironic, disturbing and erotic. And that is rather more than camp. Actually, it made the rest of Hollywood look camp, or at least banal.