The actors are not trying to hide that they live in the 20th century in the USA, the sets are designed for being "too much", there's no attempt to develop a moral message (i.e. a text in the end that says "Catherine II modernized Russia, blah, blah..." would be out of place). And yet, I couldn't say this film can't be taken seriously, or that it lacks balance, since it takes its style to its last consequences.
A wonderful melodrama, luxuriating in the decadence it purports to abhor. Hollywood actors' broad-brush take on Russian gloom and the many visions of Dietrich's face in close-up turn history into glorious soap opera; yet when the scenery dwarfs the actors it points strongly toward Eisenstein's later, and this time psychological, analysis of an earlier, and darker, period of the Russian Court.
Oozes decadence, sexuality, and flamboyance. Through all the glistening costumes the actors are bursting with energy and maddening power. The master of shadow and light strikes again, creating a universe that is almost otherworldly. One of those rare movies where I don't care for historical accuracy. I just grab my tiara and enjoy the misty ride to sweet oblivion, where the real world is seen through a gauze.
This film is like eating seven-layer cake for dinner: not something you'd want to do every night, but a sublime treat when you're in the mood to be decadent. It's to the immense credit of the performers (especially Dietrich) that they fight through prop, set, costume and camera to emerge as strong, individualized personalities, reveling in their mastery of an utterly sexualized universe. It's a total blast.
It's been eleven years now since Criterion released this on DVD. That said, when will they get around to releasing an upgrade? The 2001 release of this film was just not up to their well-known standards, and this is one that deserves better. Witness the three Von Sternberg silents released as a set two years ago, all possess exceptional sound and image quality. Probably not high on their priority list, but still...
Unfiltered Sternberg. Perhaps his most opulent and visually spectacular film -- That feast scene! Those sets! Dietrich in fur! -- but I felt this less deeply than some of his other films. Perhaps that's because Dietrich arcs from emotionally vulnerable child into an ice queen rather than starting out as an ice queen and slowly revealing her fragile interior. Still, Sternberg is the master of mise en scene.
I disagree with those who say this is von Sternberg's best film, but it is quite an achievement. The early montage sequence shows why the director was one of the finest of the silent era, and then the last half of the film shows why he is probably the best director of the 1930s. And anyone who has ever doubted the chops of Dietrich just watch the scene in which she gazes on her pathetic husband and his mistress.