Mise-en-scéne in von Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress
Sternberg is known for creating lavish settings, and The Scarlet Empress is no exception. Each shot is grotesque, each costume so overly elaborate, that you can almost feel the weight on Princess Catherine’s shoulders as she moves quickly and nervously through the palace full of sculptures, candles, and draperies of sheer lace.

Sternberg uses candles and other sources of light to accentuate his main characters emotional state. Working within the limitations of 1930’s filmmaking technology, he uses high contrast lighting for dramatic effect; characters are constantly creeping in and out of shadows, and Catherine’s perfectly pale faces stands out like a jewel in every shot. He forces the viewer to pay attention to her face any time it is in the frame.

For Catherine, hiding in the shadows leads her into temptation and ultimately a sexual power game with her new husband. The sharp edges of darks and lights that tear into each frame of Sternberg’s film seem to predict her aggressive reaction to being forced into this position.

Another innovative technique Sternberg uses throughout the film is the dissolve, in which shots seem to fade into and out of one another, sometimes being allowed to overlap for a few moments so that they compete for dominance. This is used symbolically in the scene where the horned beasts’ head on a statue dissolves into the face of Alexei, Catherine’s one time lover and long time source of jealousy and heartache. For a moment the images are superimposed, making the association between the two rather obviously.