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Young Princess Sophia of Germany is taken to Russia to marry the half-wit Grand Duke Peter, son of the Empress. The domineering Empress hopes to improve the royal blood line. Sophia doesn't like her husband, but she likes Russia, and is very fond of Russian soldiers. She dutifully produces a son -- of questionable fatherhood, but no one seems to mind that. After the old empress dies, Sophia engineers a coup d'etat with the aid of the military, does away with Peter, and becomes Catherine the Great. Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. See more »
Peter's Holstein guard is falsely referred to as Hessian. This may have been deliberate to make use of the bad reputation of Hessian mercenaries in the US war of independence. See more »
While cold and emotionally distant, it still is an amazing film due to its artistic vision
This is an absolutely amazing film to watch. I have seen several other collaborations between director Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich and I think this is the best--mostly due to it being like a giant painting or tapestry that was almost mesmerizing. The film is a rather odd look at a brief period of the life of Catherine the Great of Russia. It follows her from her betrothal (when she is a Germanic princess) to her ultimately killing her husband and assuming the throne--the space of just a few years).
During the entire picture, what stood out were the amazing sets. The film begins with some very graphic torture chamber scenes that are definitely "Pre-Code" in that they are so frightening and because of the copious amounts of gratuitous female nudity. While this never could have been allowed once the stronger Production Code was implemented around 1935, it is a captivating and bizarre introduction to the movie and it certainly got your attention!! Then, throughout the film, the sets were magnificent and very twisted--almost like they had been inspired by a combination of LSD, Jean Cocteau's version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch! Twisted and grotesque anthropomorphic statues, banisters, candelabras, chairs, etc. grace practically every scene inside the palace--making it look like a combination of Hell and whimsy!! You really just have to see it all to believe it. What was also amazing was how Paramount was able to construct all this without the production bankrupting the company!!! While the dialog and acting is fine, they take a definite backseat to the sets. It's very obvious that Von Sternberg really wasn't trying to humanize the characters or shed too much light on the life of Catherine--it was really more of a work of performance art. And if you accept it as this and NOT an absolutely true recounting of the life of Catherine, then you will be in for a treat.
As for the historical side of the film, there has long been some disagreement about the coup and subsequent execution of Catherine's husband. While it is almost undoubtedly true she orchestrated it (after all, they made her their leader after Peter's death), what isn't so certain is the character of Peter. Some accounts have described him as half-witted or insane (exactly how he's shown in the film) but others doubt if this was exactly the case--it could have just been propaganda used by Catherine to justify her actions. Plus, when Peter died, some apparently reported this was of natural causes and not murder! Considering everything, though, the film had to portray Peter III some way and the evil half-wit was an enjoyable choice--as Sam Jaffe looked so crazed and made the part come alive with his insane-looking eyes and wonderful delivery! Dietrich herself was also very good (perhaps due to her not being so "artificial-looking" like she was in some of her other films due to excessive makeup), but her performance was definitely overshadowed by the sets and Jaffe
By the way, I originally gave this film a very respectable score of 8. However, after seeing "The Rise of Catherine the Great" (which was made the exact same year and covered the exact same material), I saw that this Dietrich film was a lot better by comparison. I especially think that Dietrich and Jaffe were a much better Peter and Catherine than Elisabeth Bergner and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in the other film.
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