Josef von Sternberg's 1934 film turns the legend of Catherine the Great into a study of sexuality sadistically repressed and reborn as politics, thus anticipating Bertolucci by three decades. Marlene Dietrich's transformation from spoiled princess to castrating matriarch is played for both terror and sympathy, surface coolness and buried passion, with weird injections of black humor from Sam Jaffe's degenerate grand duke. Sternberg's mise-en-scene is, for once, oppressively materialistic, emphasizing closeness, heaviness, temperature, and smell. With John Lodge, Louise Dresser, and C. Aubrey Smith.
By Dave Kehr