Josef von Sternberg’s penultimate Marlene Dietrich film finds the object of his obsession playing Catherine the Great. That should be enough to get you to want to see The Scarlet Empress (1934) by itself, but there’s more—very much more. Sternberg called his film a “relentless excursion into style,” and he wasn’t just whistling the “1812 Overture” (though he would conduct a symphony orchestra playing that—and “Ride of the Valkyries”—before the production was over). Supposedly based on “a diary of Catherine II” (which is almost certainly pure moonshine), what he made is a phantasmagoria of sex, sadism, political intrigue and more sex—not to mention Dietrich in an array of Travis Banton gowns (and one all-white army uniform). And it all takes place in a Russia that never existed outside the imaginings of Sternberg’s mind. Grotesque statuary, ikons and gigantic doors in structures somewhere between, in Sternberg’s words, “a barn and a palace”—all full of candles, incense smoke and net curtains. There was nothing like it before and would be nothing quite like it ever again. It has to be seen to be believed, as either Sternberg’s masterpiece or the grandest folly any filmmaker ever got away with at a major studio.