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Directed by Josef von Sternberg

United States 1934 104 mins. In English

Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg tackle the historical costume drama—in this case the court of Catherine the Great. However, the normal stodginess is upended in a true Sternbergian, expressionist style, complete with hedonistic parties and political intrigue that will make anyone blush. Bratty princess Sophia Frederica (Dietrich) is married into Russian royalty, but is appalled to find that not all is as she expected in the palace. Ushered into salacious political intrigue, Sophia slowly becomes Catherine, her star rising and her viciousness reaching full flower. Meanwhile, Catherine meets a new lover, Alexei (John Davis Lodge), who helps her with the vertiginous ascent. Von Sternberg’s direction calls for the lavish palatial trappings and heavy visual flourishes that, by 1934, were a given in his work. Dietrich matches von Sternberg’s stylistic audacity with a fierce performance. “The movie was released in 1934, just as the Hays Office began to police Hollywood films for morals violations. Von Sternberg must have had a friend on the force; he gets away with murder.”—Roger Ebert.