Unfortunately, the Siren household has come down with omicron—like dominoes, one, two, three, four, five. We’re convalescing nicely (the vaccines undoubtedly helped) but this state of affairs is why this week’s entry is a reprint of sorts, although it has never been available in full online. Here, with some small edits, is the essay I wrote to accompany Film Movement’s 2017 blu-ray set of The Sissi Trilogy (Sissi; Sissi: The Young Empress; Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress; and also Forever My Love, a compilation of the trilogy released for the U.S. market, as well as Victoria in Dover). The set is still in print. I’m publishing the essay with the kind permission of Film Movement. Writing about the enchanting Romy Schneider, and the role that made her a star, remains one of the most pleasurable assignments I’ve had.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria was an enigmatic and ultimately tragic figure, who married too young, buried two of her children, and had an essentially shy nature that made being feted and ogled a mixed blessing at best. Much of her behavior strikes a modern observer as evidence of deep unhappiness, in particular her constant traveling well away from her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph; the obsessive ritual of her hair styling, which took at minimum two hours a day; and the way she kept her figure unnaturally slim with punishing exercise and a near-starvation diet. But for millions of people, none of that has much to do with their image. The troubled consort lives in their mind as ravishing teenage Romy Schneider, who played Sissi in three movies directed by Ernst Marischka from 1955 to 1957.
Schneider was 17 when she took the role that would make her one of the biggest stars in Europe. The first film’s Sissi lives an idyllic, unfettered existence at the castle of her father, Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria (Gustav Knuth), and her mother, Princess Ludovika of Bavaria (Magda Schneider). Sissi is a rambunctious, animal-loving child of nature, clearly her father’s favorite, jumping hedges on horseback and happily tramping up the mountain with him to hunt down a stag—when Sissi, incapable of cruelty, contrives to sneeze just as her father’s finger is on the trigger. Ludovika cooks sausages, allows her eight children to run through the house, and is generally the picture of maternal wisdom; she is also the sister of the fearsome Archduchess Sophie (Vilma Degischer), mother of the young Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph (Karlheinz Boehm). The two women have decided to marry off Sissi’s older sister Helene, called Néné (Uta Franz), to Franz Joseph. But when he meets Sissi, he falls instantly in love. The movie tracks Franz and Sissi’s path to engagement, hindered by things such as Néné’s hurt feelings, Sophie’s cold disapproval, and the confused interference of a bumbling police officer, played by Josef Meinrad, a well-known comic actor from the German stage.
Marischka adores his Sissi, and the compositions, framing and blocking favor Romy Schneider every time she is in the scene. Schneider smiles with her entire body; in her dialogue scenes, she listens with absolute focus. Along with her perfect Winterhalter looks, Schneider projects unaffected warmth and vivacity. Uta Franz, playing Néné, was the greater beauty at the time, but Schneider has an allure that no one else in the movie can match. An emperor’s love at first sight? Of course. She is ours, too.
The supporting cast is mostly excellent. Karlheinz Bohm’s signature role came later, as the killer in Michael Powell’s doomed masterpiece Peeping Tom. Here, he is an upright, loyal, and kind monarch, a sort of Emperor Knows Best. This has nothing to do with history’s notably autocratic Franz Joseph, but Bohm’s chemistry with Schneider is real enough. Degischer shines as the Archduchess Sophie, wielding a repertoire of stern rebukes and hortatory imperial speeches. When Sophie is seriously displeased (and that is often), her chin drops slightly, her head tilts at an angle as though she cannot believe the idiocy she just heard, and the heavy-lidded eyes glance upward, as though requesting the Almighty’s assistance in proving that she is, as always, right. Meinrad, on the other hand, is something of a trial, although he does improve in the two subsequent films.
Sissi was made in Agfacolor, known as Ansco Color in the U.S. The process had a softer, flatter look than Technicolor, and it gives Marischka’s love of picturesque landscapes and dainty palace rooms the quality of lavish book illustrations. The production design (Fritz Jüptner-Jonstorff for all three) and costumes (by Leo Bei, Gerdago, and Franz Szivats) are an essential part of the films’ continuing appeal. Unlike Technicolor, Agfacolor did especially well with pastel shades, so Sissi and Néné are frequently in delicate white, yellow and pink; for the climactic scene of Sissi and Franz’s engagement, Schneider wears a robin’s egg blue gown festooned with flowers, like the visual embodiment of spring and young love.
The Sissi films belong to a type of German movie known as the Heimat film— literally, homeland, escapist pictures usually focused on the beauty of nature, family, and romance. Hungry in 1955 for a vision that bypassed the horrors that had ended barely a decade before, millions of West Germans saw Sissi in the first year of its release, and it was a major hit elsewhere in Europe, too. Production rapidly began on the second film, Sissi: The Young Empress, released in 1956. This one detailed the young Imperial couple’s first child; the interference of Archduchess Sophie, who names the little girl after herself and attempts to take over childrearing; and Sissi’s growing love for Hungary and its people, personified by dashing Count Andrassy (Walther Reyer). In the third and last installment, Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), Sissi is still working to aid Hungary, and the Count. She contracts a deadly illness (obviously tuberculosis, although the word is never spoken) and must leave her daughter and Franz for a warmer climate. Her morale plummets, it seems Sissi may die, but mother Ludovika arrives just in time to nurse Sissi back to health.
Unabashedly sentimental in a way familiar to Americans who love the Disney movies of the era, the Sissi films have never been exalted by critics, although academics love to tease out the near-infinite amount of historical and sexual subtext beneath the films’ stubbornly naive exterior. To audiences, as proved by millions of viewers over many years of annual Christmas showings on European TV, Sissi is irresistible. Which, in the end, is another way of saying that Romy Schneider is.
Romy was born Rosemarie Magdalena Albach-Retty in Vienna in 1938, to a family of actors. Her mother was Magda Schneider, who found her best role as innocent bourgeois girl Christine in Max Ophuls’ great Liebelei (a role that daughter Romy would reprise in Marischka’s 1959 remake, opposite Alain Delon). Magda was said to be Hitler’s favorite actress; she was usually cast as the ingenue in the uplifting comedies and costume fantasies that were churned out for the citizens of the Third Reich. Romy’s father was also an actor, albeit less well-known, named Wolf Albach-Retty. The Albach-Retty residence was situated close to Hitler's holiday digs, Obersalzberg, where Romy’s parents were frequent guests.
Unsurprisingly these associations haunted Magda after the war, and her career might have ended forever had Romy not blossomed into an exceptional beauty who was cast in her first movie, Wenn der weisse Flieder wieder blueht (When the White Lilac Blooms Again), at age 15. Magda played Romy’s mother in the film.
In 1954, Magda played Queen Victoria’s influential governess, Baroness Lezhen, to her daughter’s tremulous “Vickie” in Victoria in Dover. In retrospect a nearly down-the-line dress rehearsal for Sissi, sharing very nearly the same crew including Marischka, Victoria in Dover finds teenage Vickie running away to Dover and meeting her future husband, Prince Albert. So for five years or so, playing Romy’s on-screen mother, or mother figure, was what paid Magda’s bills. When Romy flatly refused, three years later, to do a fourth Sissi movie, Magda was not pleased.
But almost no actor wants one role to dominate a public image, and Romy Schneider was no exception. Sometimes she tried to be diplomatic about the eternal Sissi mania. "Yes, I loved this role back then," she said. "I was the princess, not just in front of the camera. I was always a princess. But one day I simply did not want to be a princess anymore." At other times, her patience snapped. “Sissi sticks me to me just like oatmeal,” she famously complained. It was, after all, a relic of her teen years. It was not long before Schneider had ventured to Paris and was seeking out roles of startling maturity, for filmmakers that included Orson Welles, Claude Sautet, Jacques Deray, and later, Luchino Visconti, for whom she made Ludwig, about the Mad King of Bavaria. Schneider played the older, sadder Empress Elisabeth, whose child Sophie had died before her third birthday, of what was probably typhus. This character in Ludwig was definitely no longer Sissi.
The real empress’ longed-for heir to the Austrian throne, son Rudolf, died age 30 in the hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889, most likely a murder-suicide with his mistress. Schneider, too, had a personal life that was stalked by misfortune and grief, including the suicide of one husband and the accidental death of her only son. After her death, of alcohol-induced heart failure in 1982, many people remarked that Schneider’s life resembled the real Elisabeth’s in ways no one could have wanted.
But for all that the Sissi films are universally described as fairy-tale fiction, there are a number of facts that did survive script and filming. If you watch the Sissi films, then read a biography, many events will be recognizable. Generally speaking, the movies take a fact, polish it, dress it up, and make it seem as nice as possible. The troubles that haunted the real Elisabeth are merely hinted at, in moments such as the first movie’s touching scene of Sissi releasing her pets back to nature, because she doesn’t want them to be in a cage.
The one time Sissi’s dark future is allowed to intrude comes briefly in Fateful Years of an Empress, when a Romany woman reads the Empress’ palm. The fortune-teller takes the hand, a look of horror crosses her face, then she recovers and hastily predicts Sissi will have a boy and a girl. That is one girl short of the actual number, conjuring Sophie’s fate, as well as the ghost of Mayerling. “Poor lady,” says the fortune-teller, her arm around her own daughter after Sissi turns away. “I would not want to trade places with her.”
The chill dissolves quickly, and in the final scene, Sissi returns to Franz’s side for an imperial visit to Venice. Together they move through a hostile, silent Italian crowd in St. Mark’s Square. But when their child appears, and Sissi breaks protocol to swoop Sophie into an embrace, the crowd breaks into cheers—for beauty, for love, for motherhood.
As Orson Welles remarked, a happy ending depends on where you stop your story. Marischka and company end at the height of optimism and enchanting youth for Sissi, and leave her suspended in that moment, forever. Decades later, the films still offer the same for their star.