Based on the diaries of Catherine The Great of Russia, the story felt like it spanned maybe a year or two, but wikipedia says it was sixteen years between her marriage and the coup she arranged to replace her husband on the throne.
Marlene Dietrich plays Sophia (Catherine is her Russian title), at first a naive girl from the country married to a not-handsome prince (Sam Jaffe of The Day the Earth Stood Still), instead entranced by a count (John Lodge of Murders in the Zoo, future governor of Connecticut).
Marlene and the count:
Catherine is under great scrutiny until she bears her “husband” a son (he’s only momentarily bothered by the fact that they never slept together), then she’s free to run around having affairs and plotting. Nothing is done while queen Elizabeth is in charge, but once Catherine’s husband becomes emperor he doesn’t last a year before his wife has taken over. Catherine has caught the Count fooling around with the former queen, realizes he’s just sleeping around with whoever’s in power, and throws him over.
Katy and I would’ve liked to see more than a minute of screen time with Dietrich as the actual empress – didn’t know that would be where the movie dead-ends. Sternberg is, of course, much more concerned with his camera angles and lighting, and most importantly, shooting Dietrich through a series of filters and gauzes and screens. The wedding scene is an incredible cinematography show-reel, each shot outdoing the last.
The connecting theme of all the von Sternberg/Dietrich films might be expressed as a question: How does a woman, and at what cost, assert herself within an overwhelmingly male-dominated world? Each film offers a somewhat different answer (but none very encouraging), steadily evolving into the extreme pessimism and bitterness of The Scarlet Empress and achieving its apotheosis in their final collaboration The Devil Is a Woman.
R. Keser calls it the last great pre-code film, says it “mocks Hollywood’s conventional groveling toward royalty.”