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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>
It may be kitsch and the most OTT of all spectacles but it has its own magnificence, (it's a masterpiece of kitsch). There is a delirium about the film that very few film-makers have matched. Today few film-makers would want to. In a way it re-defines camp; it has all the trimmings but with an intelligence and a bravura sense of cinema that lifts it into a different dimension altogether. The 'deliberate' ham acting of most of the cast, the broad American accents and the idiosyncratic dialogue are all at odds with the whole look of the film, its visual extravagance and the huge Expressionist sets. At times it looks like a silent film with its wordless passages and use of inter-titles and like the great silent epics it uses its imagery to propel its narrative.
It's not about the reign of Catherine the Great, (it ends when she comes to power), but rather it's about her early life at the Russian Court and her disastrous marriage to the mad Grand Duke Peter, (Sam Jaffe, emoting like a demented Ken Dodd). But the plot doesn't seem to matter either. It's as if Von Sternberg only seems interested in the trappings of power, in the minutiae of court intrigue rather than in the intrigue itself, (in this respect it's a bit like Sofia Coppolla's "Marie-Antoinette"), and, of course, in Dietrich he has a magnificent Catherine. Dietrich may have been the greatest 'non-actress' that ever lived. Beloved by the camera, she simply had to react. No director ever had a subject as fetishistically adored and of all their collaborations this was their greatest achievement.
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