During the eighteenth century Princess Sophia (Marlene Dietrich) was part of the Prussian royal family, a young innocent dutifully agreeable to doing whatever her mother requested of her. She had heard of the events in Russia and that the Tsar had been extremely brutal, torturing and executing many of his citizens simply to ensure that the power he wielded was feared throughout the land, but currently the country was being ruled by his sister, the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) in lieu of her nephew Peter (Sam Jaffe) taking over. When Sophia was ordered to leave home for Russia and marry the strong, handsome, commanding Peter, she obliged willingly...
Except she has been lied to, and would continue to be taken advantage of in a very un-Marlene Dietrich kind of way for almost two thirds of the movie. The Scarlet Empress was a notorious flop in its day, one of the collaborations between her and director Josef von Sternberg who to all appearances understood the star's appeal better than any other talent ever did, both in the lovingly crafted images of her and the plotlines of the roles she took under his tutelage. But for whatever reason, whether it was because there had been a hit Catherine the Great movie released in the last year or the visuals were just too arty for the average moviegoer in 1934, audiences found this offputting and mostly stayed away.
Thus a cult movie was quickly formed, one which periodically gains fans down the decades from viewers who cannot quite believe what they are seeing, from the opening montage of nude women tortured and heads lopped off to the extravagant set design which was supposed to be faithful to the Russian court of two hundred years before, but actually once Sophia and her mother arrive in Moscow they might as well be settling on a different planet, such is the downright weird nature of the film's design. There had been no other film to truly look like this and very little after, von Sternberg's work was so singular, so eccentric, that it seemed pointless to try and top him or even imitate him slavishly; there had been nothing quite like him in the history of cinema.
Naturally, this made his work an acquired taste back then as it does today, but here was depicted not only a sexual awakening as Sophia realises when she becomes Catherine she has her allure at her disposal to use as a weapon of manipulation, but an awakening of great power as well. At first she thinks she will do as she is told, but Peter turns out to be a half-wit as the other characters often call him, and a deeply disturbing one at that with his fixed grin, staring eyes and unpleasant habits (such as drilling holes in walls to spy on people!) Jaffe created an all time creepy individual. The wedding scene with its decadent opulence and the thought that the innocent Sophia must now go to bed with this sicko is surely one of the queasiest in cinema history - all Elizabeth wants is an heir, and woe betide Sophia if she doesn't give birth to a boy.
Fortunately there is a ray of light in the strapping Count Alexei (John Lodge) who teaches her in the ways of the world, or at least court intrigue so soon she has seduced not the Count but a soldier in the grounds, and produced that heir. With that out of the way, she learns more and more, until she is well on the way to a revolution in a manner that cannot have endeared the movie to the Western powers that be never mind the public in that it apparently endorsed a more recent, Communist Russian Revolution. With a plot that pretty much depicts a rise to power by galloping increments, a lot of the appeal was down to von Sternberg's methods in fashioning unforgettable images - many have noted the debt to silent cinema here - with the design packed with huge, chess-piece-like statues, doors twenty feet high because why not, and an eerie, dreamlike quality which constantly threatens to lurch into nightmare. A lot of this is so excessive that many find it hard to take, dismissing it as camp or unwatchable, but it was neither: it was crystalised feverish delirium.