The film, the story of the “Messalina of the North,” begins with the arranged marriage of young, innocent Catherine to Grand Duke Peter of Russia. Her parents, particularly her mother, are thrilled about the match, because it means that one day their daughter will be consort to the ruler of one of the world’s greatest empires. Count Alexey Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador, conveys the young bride-to-be and her family to Russia, and along the way, he falls in love with her. He has given Sophia the impression that her betrothed is handsome and noble, and Sophia is disappointed to see that her husband is little more than an eccentric, juvenile young man who is more concerned about his toy soldiers and playing at being a general than his upcoming marriage. Nonetheless, the wedding takes place, and Empress Elizaveta makes it very clear to Sophia, now Catherine, that she needs to bear her husband a son and heir. When she sees that the young married couple dislike and avoid each other, the empress takes matters into her own hands and educates Catherine about what it means to be a grand duchess and a Russian wife. At about this point in time, Catherine and Alexey begin an affair, and soon enough, she bears a son and an heir for her husband.
After the empress dies, Peter and Catherine are crowned empress and emperor, and Peter begins to make the move to divorce Catherine so that he might marry his long-time mistress, even as the empire begins to crumble under his rule. Catherine takes her destiny in her own hands and stages a coup to take power away from her husband. The film implies that she took many lovers among the members of the army to win them over to her cause, and the film ends with her becoming sole empress of Russia.
Catherine is portrayed as a woman who had been a good, dutiful wife and daughter during most of her youth, but when she succumbs to her lust for Count Alexey, she becomes an entirely different woman. Her lust for power soon eclipses her lust for men, and it makes her into a cunning woman who uses feminine wiles to obtain what she wants. Dietrich, herself a sex symbol, portrays the change in Catherine’s character flawlessly as she grows from an innocent, obedient young girl into a confident woman who knows what she wants and takes it. The film itself is one of Dietrich’s most sexually suggestive, and there were many groups who decried its blatant portrayal of sexuality.
The set designs are of a more expressionistic nature, and they portray the sense of tradition that comes with the Russian Empire, but they also impart the growing conflict between Catherine and her husband. And yet, as can be inferred, the game that Catherine throws herself into is an old one, one that’s been part of Russian rule for centuries. In truth, Catherine is very much like Cersei Lannister. While audiences in the 1930s might have found the film to be disturbing with its portrayal of a woman who sees what she wants and takes it, I found it to be very enthralling, even if it took a lot of dramatic license.