Looking for a movie for these troubled times? A movie that makes you feel good and that completely takes you out of the disturbing realities of contemporary life? Look no further than the trilogy of ‘Sissi’ movies made by Ernst Marischka in Vienna between 1955 and 1957, all starring a teenage Romy Schneider as Sissi, i.e. Her Imperial and Royal Majesty, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, or Sisi for short. For some reason, the movies add a third S to the nickname, yielding the ‘Sissi’ titles.
The three movies – Sissi, Sissi: die junge Kaiserin, and Sissi: Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin are lavish entertainments that remain popular in Europe to this day, where they are regular Christmas fare on television. They are some of the purest exercises in escapism ever put on film, and, if you’re ordered to stay home for your own good, one of the Sissi movies will do something to carry you away from brooding over being under house arrest. Watching the enchanting young Schneider go through the fictionalized trials and tribulations of Austria-Hungary’s young empress is, in a word, delightful. All three movies end most happily, and all three wrap up with eye-filling breathtaking set pieces. The first of those presents Sissi on a steamer traveling down the Danube from her native Bavaria to Austria, begowned in white and waving to adoring crowds that chant “hoch Elisabeth!” until the boat arrives at a landing where her future husband, Emperor Franz Josef I – and Haydn’s anthem – await her. Her ensuing wedding a few minutes later, while lavish, is something of an anticlimax. The second movie ends with Sissi and Franz Josef being crowned Queen and King of Hungary, with plenty of pomp, circumstance, horses, ceremonial swords, crowns, a brief speech for Schneider in Hungarian, and dashing fur-trimmed uniforms for the men. As for the series’ finale ultimo, it shows Sissi and Franz Josef in Venice, a city that shuns its hated Austrian overlord until Sissi is reunited with her daughter outside the Basilica San Marco and the crowd goes wild with shouts of “viva la mamma!”.
The movies must have cost a fortune, which is somewhat surprising, as disposable capital of that sort wasn’t lying around in every producer’s coffers in the Austria of the mid-1950s. I’m not even sure where they got all the fabric for the hundreds and hundreds of costumes involved. (With a single exception in each case, neither Sissi, nor her mother, nor her hateful mother-in-law ever wears a dress twice.) True, a close look at the costumes shows that they are not always made from the finest materials, and they did resort to rather shoddy faux fur to trim the Hungarian outfits, but, nevertheless, it’s quite a parade of clothes.
By the mid-1950s, Austria was beginning to rise from the ashes to which it deserved to be reduced during the Second World War. Perhaps Vienna’s most important municipal symbol, the State Opera, was rebuilt and reopened (with a performance of Fidelio conducted by Karl Böhm, the father of the Sissi movies’ male lead), in 1955, not coincidentally the year that the first movie was made. Emerging from the rubble to which it had been reduced as a result of its decision to welcome the Nazis with open arms in 1938, Austria needed to feel good about itself. Recent history was of no solace, as there was no way to look back on the war and see in it a noble fight for a lost cause.
So writer and director Marischka turned to the last time Austria had exhibited some form of greatness: the earlier years of the reign of Emperor Franz Josef I, whose ascent to the throne in 1848 firmly resolved a dynastic crisis in the House of Hapsburg, and who reigned until his death in 1916. Given the assassination attempt on the Emperor and regular uprisings in Italy and Hungary around the time the movies are set, these really weren’t really such Good Old Days, but they were the days of Old Vienna waltzing along to music of the Strauss dynasty, a mythological but not overly distant past before two World Wars reduced Vienna to what it is today, the small capital of a small country.
The historical and political realities of the reign of Franz Josef were far more fraught than the movies depict them, although that’s largely beside the cinematic point. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was an impossible mess of warring nationalities that encompassed, not only Austria and Hungry, but also northern Italy and the territory that would become the unstable countries of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia following the First World War. (Sissi is told by her mother-in-law that she must learn to speak Bohemian, Croatian and, of course, Hungarian.) The resulting empire was a powder keg that, as we all know, exploded to give us World War I.
Moreover, the historical Franz Josef was not a fun guy who waltzed his nights away on a carpet of apple strudel. Serious by nature, dominated by his gorgonesque mother, and a political reactionary, he devoted nearly all his energies to holding his empire together. That he did so for almost 68 years was a considerable achievement. Few political entities could have been as fractious as the Austro-Hungarian Empire: if (and this is a big if) he was beloved by his Austrian subjects, Franz Josef was every bit as much hated by the Italians, Hungarians and Slavs who lived under his rule.
A romantic figure he was not, yet history does indicate that he was very much in love with his wife. Rather unexpectedly, the marriage had all the earmarks of a love match. Franz Josef’s mother, Her Imperial Highness the Archduchess Sophie, had indeed intended for him to marry into her sister’s family, but the lucky girl was to have been Sisi’s sister Helene, known as Néné. Those plans came to naught when Franz Josef met Sisi and decided that she was the woman for him. The result, when liberally fictionalized, was one of the great love affairs in the German-speaking consciousness.
Although a love match on Franz Josef’s side, things seem to have been quite different on the Empress’. A famous beauty, the historical Sisi was emotionally unstable, and showed signs of suffering from anorexia for most of her life. When she wasn’t on a fasting cure, she ate very little and exercised compulsively. She was obsessed with her appearance, laced herself into the tightest corsets made, and spent hours in her boudoir while a former theater dresser tended to the arranging of the Her Majesty’s floor-length hair, a daily ceremony that required two hours to complete.
Elisabeth bore Franz Joseph four children: one son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, and three daughters, the first of whom died as a young child. Rudolf died in 1889 as the result of a suicide pact with his mistress, Mary Vetsera, leaving the empire without an heir apparent. Thus Elisabeth was survived well into the 20th century by only two of her children, the Archduchess Gisela and the Archduchess Marie Valerie.
The historical Elisabeth developed a strong affinity for Hungary, and spent much of her time there. She paved the way for the coronation of the imperial couple as King and Queen of Hungary, in no small measure by having become a close friend of noted Hungarian agitator, Count Gyula Andrássy. Rumors abounded that Elisabeth and Andrássy were lovers, although history indicates that the rumors were probably unsubstantiated. Regardless, Elisabeth seems to have done her best to spend as little time as possible at the Austrian court, taking refuge first in Hungary, and, towards the end of her life, in a villa at Corfu. (Modern Greek was one of the languages the real-life Sisi spoke.) She withdrew even further upon the death of her son, and, although an empress consort seems an odd target for an assassination, she was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in 1898.
The historical background doesn’t sound overly promising as the stuff of a trio of escapist films, but Marischka thrice pulled just that rabbit out the hat. In the process, he created a mythological romantic couple out of Sissi and Franz Josef. I even recall Sissi and Franz Josef teddy bears being sold on QVC as late as the 1990s.
What Marischka – whose other credits include assembling the standard performing edition of Johann Strauss II’s operetta Eine Nacht in Venedig – did was create a trio of operetta films that just happen not to have any sung numbers. The movies’ origins actually were in an operetta, Sissy, written by Marischka with his brother Hubert to music by Fritz Kreisler. Although nothing remains of Kreisler’s music in Sissi, all three movies have very attractive scores by Anton Profes, which are never far from operetta, be it in Sissi’s Leháresque main theme or the Kalmán-like music for the Hungarian episodes. The movies are confections as light and airy as the Spanische Windtorte, an invention of the Viennese pastry chefs that is comprised mostly of whipped cream and meringue.
Although the movies sanitize, conflate, simplify and occasionally omit history entirely, the basics are nonetheless there. Reference is made to the crisis that led to Franz Josef’s parents abdicating in his favor, as well as to the assassination attempt on the Emperor prior to the action of the first film. Marischka’s Franz Josef fleetingly mentions possible wars with France and Russia, the Italian hatred of their Hapsburg overlords forms much of the plot of the last third of the last movie, and there is no shortage of restive Hungarians. Their uprising between the end of the first movie and the start of the second is met, however, not with the real-life imperial iron fist, but with a granting of imperial amnesty.
The third movie even touches lightly on the question of Elisabeth’s supposed infidelity. There is a flirtation with the dashing Count Andrássy, but, when he actually makes love to Sissi, he is rebuffed and she promptly departs Hungary and returns to Franz Josef. On an even chaster note, Colonel Böckl, the chief military officer in the Empress’ household, admits to being in love with Sissi as well, but, in this case, he is the soul of chivalry, devoted but never questioning the distance between himself and his lady love.
There is, however, quite a bit of tinkering with Sisi and Franzl’s unfortunate children. The first daughter, Sophie, died before she was three. The second daughter, Gisela, is the one who lived into adulthood, meaning that the child who appears at the end of the last movie, although named Sophie, is in reality a conflation of the imperial couple’s first two daughters. The doomed Rudolf is nowhere mentioned.
There is also a bit of fantasy involved in the second third of the last movie, in which Sisi becomes ‘lung-sick’ (lungenkrank) following her disillusionment with Count Andrássy. (For some reason the word ‘tuberculosis’ is never used.) Sissi is removed to Madeira, where she languishes and coughs until her mother joins her to help her pull herself together. The imperial party then moves to Corfu, where we are told Sissi buys a house – as did the real-life Elisabeth, except that the real Sisi’s Greek villa was purchased decades following the period in which the movie is set.
Writing this, I’ve realized that the tinkering with history in the movies isn’t as great as I’d originally thought it might be. You still can’t learn your Central European history from the Sissi movies, but you’re not going to come away with your understanding of mid-19th century Austria completely warped. Marischka was, after all, writing for an audience that had gone to school in Austria and knew its country’s history. Moreover, anyone over the age of 39 seeing the movies when they were first released would have lived under Franz Josef’s personal rule. There were unquestionably people alive in 1955 who had lived through the real-life Sisi’s assassination in 1898, and those people had parents who would have remembered the imperial wedding in 1854. Marischka may have plunged back into a long-lost era, but that long-lost era wasn’t so terribly long ago. Losing two world wars can do a lot to a country’s perception of time.
The first film opens with gorgeous shots of the ‘Bavarian’ countryside (in reality the Salzkammergut doing duty for Sissi’s native land), captured in gentle Agfacolor in the manner of a film genre that had begun in German-speaking countries earlier in the decade, the Heimatfilm. This isn’t the place to go into the simplicities and complexities of the genre; suffice it to say that a Heimatfilm is a feel-good affair with happy characters, uncomplicated plots, sometimes an historical setting, and grand and sweeping views of the countryside, be it the Schwarzwald or the Tyrol. I suppose the implications of and need for such films in that part of the world at that point in history can be easily understood.
One aspect of the Sissi films is that they are the ne plus ultra of the Heimatfilm.
There is no shortage of mountain and sylvan scenery, be it the opening scenes in the Salzkammergut, the forest in which Sissi and Franz Josef first meet, the sweeping vistas of the Danube as Sissi sails in grand estate on her way to meet her bridegroom (all that in the first movie), the magnificent scenery on view when the imperial pair visits the Tyrol incognito, and the shots of the Hungarian puszta (second movie) and the ‘Hungarian’ woods through which Sissi and Count Andrássy ride at the start of the third movie.
Although not shots of the Heimat per se, the vistas of Salerno (which does duty for both Madeira and Corfu) and the climactic Venice scenes fill the screen in spectacular fashion and are composed to take advantage of the plusses and minuses of the color process. (Agfacolor produces a flatter-looking image but reproduces gentle colors infinitely better than Technicolor, thus the proliferation of pastels in the ladies’ costumes. There is none of the garishness that can often result from the indiscriminate use of Technicolor.)
Although I suspect that the scenes of Franz Josef and Sissi’s triumphant progress across the puszta (along with most of the footage of animals) were done by a second unit, the whole filmmaking operation did have to be transported to Italy for the Salerno and (even more) the Venice sequences. Packing up that many costumes must have been a logistical nightmare in and of itself, and perhaps explains why, in the ‘Madeira’ sequence, Sissi’s mother wears a dress twice.
Do note that, while exteriors abound, they are all Heimatfilm-type country settings. Venice excepted, there are no urban exteriors. Vienna is signaled by a recurring establishing shot of Schönbrunn Palace, and two scenes (one with Sissi in the second movie, one between Franz Josef and Néné in the third) are shot on the palace grounds. Vienna itself never appears, and for obvious reasons: in 1955, there was still not much left of the city. Although it was rebuilt eventually to recapture much of its 19th century charm, Vienna was still very much under construction in 1955. There was simply no Vienna in which to film a movie set in the middle of the 19th century.
The scenes in Vienna all take place inside, and must almost all have been filmed in the studio. (An exception is Sissi’s wedding, shot in Michaelerkirche, which must have survived the war more or less intact.) The sets are lavish, with white, gilt and red predominating. On close inspection, once begins to suspect that pieces of scenery are rearranged to form other locales (Count Andrássy’s country house and the country house of Sissi’s parents have very similar faux-finish marble columns), but the effect is nonetheless sumptuous. To people still living through the aftermath of a disastrous war, the Sissi movies must have appeared as lavish as Gone with the Wind. (A comparison between that movie and the Sissi trilogy might be interesting: grand and lavish historical epics that depict the losers as the winners.)
The movies are delightful pieces of nonsense liberally laced with Schlagobers, but are noteworthy nonetheless, not least of all because of their ongoing popularity. (They were re-released, the Agfacolor faithfully restored, only two years ago as a 5 DVD-set.) Sissi’s political moment has passed, and it was a political moment that might not have been entirely palatable to the victors of a war against the country whose past is glorified in the films, but the films endure.
What is the reason for their continuing appeal?
Partly the visual sumptuousness I’ve already mentioned. And partly the efforts of a marvelous cast of gifted actors who possess, among many other virtues, the ability to play kitsch absolutely straight. There is an endearing naïveté to the movies as when, for example, Sissi offers a tankard of beer to a cardinal and he nods his acceptance gleefully. Next, when offered the same beverage, the Archduchess Sophie looks to the heavens and utters my favorite line in all three movies: “eher Baldriantropfen” (I’d rather have valerian drops.)
At the heart of the entire enterprise is the teenage Schneider’s performance. She was 17 when the first movie was shot, but had already been working for several years. (She’d starred, at age 16, in Marischka’s Victoria in Dover, something of a dry run for Sissi.) Schneider possesses complete aplomb and is fully capable of carrying not one but three movies on her own. Petite (although the real-life Elisabeth was very tall), lovely to look at in a distinctive way, she is the essence of the German word entzückend, something of a combination of ‘enchanting’ and ‘cute’, a combination of words which fails completely to do Schneider’s performance justice.
As Franz Josef, Karlheinz Böhm is as blond, blue-eyed and handsome as one could wish, with quite a bit of the operetta juvenile lead about him. He looks good in the uniforms the emperor always wore, although he looks even better when dressed for mountaineering with windblown hair during the episode in the second film in which Sissi and Franz Josef spend a few days incognito in the Tyrol. He contrives to play stiff and ardent at the same time, and we never cease to believe that he loves Sissi, even when he is being unreasonable.
Usually the Emperor’s unreasonableness is the result of his following the dictates of his dreadful mother, the Archduchess Sophie. Less than ten minutes into the first movie, a friend of Sissi’s father tells us that the word around town is that the Archduchess is the only ‘man’ in the Hofburg. (Indeed, Franz Josef’s father, delightfully played by Erich Nikowitz, hasn’t the slightest interest in politics and feigns deafness so as not to have to converse too frequently with the fools of this world.) The Archduchess was chiefly responsible for putting Franz Josef on the throne, a feat which could only have been accomplished by a woman of great determination. Although she is Sissi’s antagonist, the Archduchess Sophie isn’t really a villain: she does what she does because she thinks it’s the right thing to do for the monarchy’s sake, even when (in the second movie) she seeks to separate Sissi from her child. It’s a big, juicy part, and Vilma Degischer bites into it hungrily. Her success is that she manages to keep her character from becoming entirely hateful. She can even manage a few dryly deadpan remarks (like the one about valerian drops mentioned above.)
The sympathetic older female character is Sissi’s mother, played by Schneider’s real-life mother, Magda. A famous actress before and during the war, she was much admired by Hitler, a small detail that compromised her chances for a post-war career. Frau Schneider was only able to revive her fortunes playing opposite her precociously talented daughter, and, indeed, today is remembered chiefly as Romy Schneider’s mother. She makes the Duchess Ludovika into a highly lovable and sympathetic character. It’s a weird comparison, I know, but the same warmth that the Schneiders, mère et fille, communicate in the Sissi movies (and in Victoria in Dover, where Magda plays Romy’s governess) is not unlike the spell cast by Billy Ray Cyrus and real-life daughter Miley in Hannah Montana. The onscreen relationships, of course, tell us nothing of the relationships between the real Magda and Romy and Billy Ray and Miley.
The rest of the cast is equally as likable. Josef Meinrad, one of Vienna’s most beloved stage actors, takes on the comic relief role of Major (later Colonel) Böckl, and charms us even when the material he is given borders on the stupid. Gustav Knuth makes Sissi’s father as lovable and jovial as one could wish, and the lovely Uta Franz plays Sissi’s sister Néné with the right mix of dignity, charm, and, ultimately, gentle pathos. Walther Reyer provides a handsome and dashing Hungarian almost love interest as Count Andrássy, and so on down through all the supporting players.
Above and beyond the excellent cast, what makes the Sissi moves such successful escapism? What explains their enduring popularity – and what makes them appropriate for a day and age in which we are all sheltered in place in our domiciles, spaced 6 feet from each other, and generally living on edge, discontented and unemployed?
The Heimatfilm aspect is a part of the answer. These movies were made to be comforting, not to shake us to the very depth of our souls. Nor even halfway down into our souls. They show us a happy time with happy people in happy places, especially to an original audience that was living in a world still ravaged by war and bombing raids. A variety of Heimatfilme can be seen on YouTube; the Sissi movies rise above the genre, however, not least of all because of their opulence.
That visual opulence is another factor. Who doesn’t like movies about kings and queens who wear gorgeous costumes and have balls in elaborate ballrooms with chandeliers and the Kaiserwalzer playing? Such movies provide a window onto a world most of us will never know first-hand, and tap into our primal prince and princess fantasies. Who hasn’t wanted to be royalty at some point in their lives? And by this I mean the old kind of royalty, where emperors and archduchesses wore their titles proudly and bore a distinct lack of resemblance to the mere mortals they governed. (Franz Josef, although he didn’t exactly govern by Divine Right, was far from the figurehead of a constitutional monarchy. Even as played by Böhm, he’s an autocrat very willing to go against the wishes of his ministers.) Although there are perhaps parts of the movies that wouldn’t appeal to a six-year-old girl, the Sissi movies are, on one level, princess movies pure and simple. (To such an extent that Disney had a hand in the North American distribution of the movies when they were first released. This prior to the cut-down and dubbed Paramount English version, Forever My Love, which didn’t appear until 1962.)
Difficult times also call for happy endings, and the Sissi movies provide those. Indeed, the happy endings are the spectacularly overproduced set pieces that conclude (or, in the case of Sissi, almost conclude) each of the three movies. Not only do things come out right for the characters in the end: the ends of the movies spend considerable time splashing the happy endings across the screen. Sissi’s goddess-like progress down the Danube, the spectacular indoor/outdoor coronation in Hungary, and the Venice sequence crown the three happy endings with multiple exclamation marks. I’ve compared the movies to operettas: here the movies get grand finales worthy of the showiest of musicals, only on a scale which most musicals would find difficulty in emulating. The sheer number of bodies on screen is impressive, and this was in the days when you needed actual breathing human bodies and couldn’t get away with computer-generated ones.
Finally, the films have Schneider. Her performance, no matter how she may have felt about it later in life (she allegedly complained that Sissi stuck to her “like oatmeal”), is truly incandescent. One doesn’t get to use that word too often to describe someone’s performance, but the word is justified in this case. It’s also hard to pinpoint the reasons for Schneider’s magic. Although certainly lovely, she’s not as great a beauty as Uta Franz or so many other actresses of her day. She’s a little slip of a thing, always working under huge wigs (although the real Elisabeth’s hair must have been even weightier), not always dressed in the finest of fabrics. Marischka’s dialogue, while it carries the story forward, isn’t the height of originality, so Schneider doesn’t get great words to speak. She doesn’t get a funny line anywhere in the movies, and, indeed, is unrelentingly in earnest.
And, yet, when she makes her entrance draped in red, white and green (Hungary’s colors) at Count Andrássy’s mulachak, she takes our breath away. Such visions are rarely to be seen, even on film. Marischka clearly knew how to present his star, without whom he wouldn’t have had a trilogy of movies. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else as Sissi (whereas it is possible, for example, to imagine many other people as Scarlett O’Hara.)
In a way, Schneider portrays a ‘people’s princess’ before the phrase was invented. She creates in Sissi a kind of royalty that is both remote and familiar. We never forget that she’s an empress (or, at least, we never forget that she’s royalty, even when we first meet her and she’s a mere royal highness), and, yet, she feels so close to us. We identify with her and her suffering, nowhere more than when her mother-in-law takes away her baby. Take a child from its mother? That was, of course, standard practice in the upper classes in the 19th century, but the Sissi movies are post-war creations based only loosely on the real-life Sisi, and, in 1955, children belonged with their mothers. Duchess Ludovika makes exactly this point to her sister Sophie, but it’s a modern argument. The movies may take place during the heyday of the Hapsburgs, but the Hapsburgs live out mid-20th century problems, including the difficulties a wife faces when confronted with a workaholic husband or a hateful mother-in-law who still possesses too much influence over her son.
That seems a viable recipe for escapist fare, and Marischka and Schneider give us some of the richest and best escapist fare to be found. There are doubtlessly people who will be incapable of entering into the spirit of the thing, dismiss all three movies as kitsch, but that’s their loss. Of course the movies are kitsch, but they’re good kitsch.
For these reasons, the Sissi movies are movies for our own messed-up times. We need their escapist tactics to take our minds off a crisis that is, in its own way, as disturbing as the one the Austrians continued to face in 1955.