[Warning, general, but not specific, spoilers ahead. This is history, though. Not very accurate history, but history.]
Sofia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich), an aristocratic ingénue, is manipulated into marrying the Grand Duke of Russia (Sam Jaffe), a madman beholden to his dictatorial mother, Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser). In Sofia the Empress sees only a vessel to serve Russian civilisation and culture. She forces Sofia to throw away her past life, and take on Russian ways. She changes Sofia’s name to the Russian ‘Catherine’, converts her to the Russian Orthodox Church, and commands her to bear a Russian son. But from her ruin she will become Catherine the Great.
From its first scenes the film luxuriates in the macabre and themes of lost innocence. As a child Sofia (Maria Riva) is read Russia’s bloody history as a bedtime tale. Cut to a rapid montage of governmental carnage. Smash cut to a now adult Sofia on a garden swing, kicking into the camera.