CATHERINE OF RUSSIA (aka Caterina di Russia), Italy-France-Yugoslavia 1963
starring HILDEGARDE KNEF/NEFF as Catherine
directed and co-written by UMBERTO LENZI
An early entry in the filmography of the great Italian genre-film auteur UMBERTO LENZI, CATHERINE OF RUSSIA is a well-mounted and intriguing European costumed historical adventure starring the always-interesting smoky-voiced HILDEGARD KNEF (also known as Hildegarde Neff), who fortunately dubs her own voice in the English language print I watched, copied from a 1980’s Greek VHS tape with Greek subtitles. The film also slows down and speeds up at odd occasions, as if whoever transferred the videotape leaned against the fast forward button for a second or so…also, it’s a pan-and-scan edition, probably originally intended for American television broadcasts.
However, in spite of the mediocre presentation on the DVD-R copy that’s making the grey-market rounds, CATHERINE OF RUSSIA is full of court intrigue, battles, back-stabbing insiders, and impressive-looking costumes (however accurate they may or may not be–the intended audience, including yours truly, would not really know).
Peter III, as played by Raoul Grassilli, is a petty tyrant but at the same time a blustering buffoon. He reminded me of the depiction of Nero in various sword and sandal films, but without the gluttony. Imagine my surprise, after thinking him Nero-esque, when two-thirds of the way through the film HE TAKES OUT HIS VIOLIN! It’s a hokey performance, not unlike Vincent Price in his late 60s/early 70s over-the-top period, but it does work…it’s a nice touch that this man who never listens to anyone and is totally convinced of his own brilliance (his fatal flaw) begins to ask his girlfriend for advice right as things are falling apart and he’s about to be arrested.
Hildegard Knef is wonderful as Catherine. I totally disagree with the person on the IMDB (only two people have reviewed this) who finds her performance one-note and wooden. She is truly regal, her powerful presence smolders, and dubbed in English by the unique voice of Knef herself, all the emotion comes through fine. She is very sympathetic, and while I do not know (or care) how accurate this depiction is, it works dramatically.
Of course, the audience for a dubbed European costumed historical drama from the early 1960’s, presented in a pan and scan TV version, is not large (I’d say everyone reading this already knows whether he/she wants to see it), but this film is so unknown, even in collectors’ circles, that I felt obliged to call attention to it. I’ll probably never get to see a restored widescreen version of this film, but at least this format captures the way that most of us in North America would have seen the film back in the day on a local UHF station at 2 a.m.—-the only difference being we’d probably be watching it on a black and white television set.
The allure of such films is that even with their modest budgets (and this was better-budgeted than many of the lower-rung spectacles) they create a kind of pulp fantasy history, with people in garish costumes and powdered wigs and horse-driven carriages and ornate royal traditions engaging in melodramatic shenanigans with assorted battles and sword-fights and tyrants barking orders at underlings who would knife them in the back at the first opportunity. These films are also not made with any agenda—-usually there is not any revisionist history worth commenting on. It’s not like an Oliver Stone film where we are presented with a conspiracy-theory reinterpretation of past events…or Spielberg’s LINCOLN, where Lincoln is recreated in 2012 terms so the film tells us much much more about the year of its creation than the 1860’s. Whatever historical period is being presented in 50’s/60’s European historical genre-films is just a prop—we could just as easily be in outer space or the Old West. The setting is an interchangeable signifier. That’s how Hercules/Maciste can turn up in Greece, Rome, Aztec Mexico, or the Scotland of the middle ages—who really cares? It’s all played on a level that has universal primal appeal, and thus can be shown dubbed in any language and shown in any country. The folks in Singapore or Kenya or Argentina like a good story and an epic sweep (on a budget) as much as anyone else does, and like me, most of them are not historians. To this film’s credit, Hildegard Knef DOES turn Catherine into a three-dimensional character, very much unlike the way Peter is depicted….he might as well be Ming The Merciless or General Custer.
There are a number of lesser-known gems in the early 60’s career of director Umberto Lenzi. These were the films where he learned his craft, by working in the popular Italian film-formula genres of the day. They hold up well, and they deserve a better fate than being traded in pan-and-scan versions on DVD-R’s taken from cheap 80’s slow-speed VHS tapes released in Greece or Indonesia or Finland.