Think, “I Was a Teenage Empress.” A trio of movies tell an optimized version of the life of a 19th century Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. It’s fuzzy history designed to prop up German morale, but the film is graced with the incredible presence of a teenaged Romy Schneider, whose beauty and personality became a sensation in the European film world.
The Sissi Collection:
Sissi The Young Empress
Sissi The Fateful Years of an Empress
The Story of Vickie
1955, 1956, 1957 / Color / 1:78 widescreen & 1:33 flat full frame / 102, 107, 109 min. / Street Date November 14, 2017 / 74.95
Starring: Romy Schneider, Karlheinz Böhm, Magda Schneider, Uta Franz, Vilma Degischer, Josef Meinrad, Gustav Knuth.
Cinematography: Bruno Mondi
Film Editor: Alfred Srp
Original Music: Anton Profes
Produced by Karl Erlich, Ernst Marischka
Written and Directed by Ernst Marischka
I’m fascinated by National Epics, movies that individual countries might take as a film that explains who they are and what they’re proud of. I learned about German Heimat movies in the early ’70s. The word means ‘homeland,’ and Heimat movies are expressions of conservative values that stress nostalgia and harmony, often softening the harsh conditions of the time and ignoring politics in favor of simplistic storytelling and innate down-home virtues. The City is bad, but Country living is heaven. Heimat stories invent a happy hinterland in the hills, where there’s nary a weed in the green grass and the mountain goats probably floss between meals. Everyone wears traditional clothing. Conflicts may arise from generational disputes or city-country problems, or maybe a single, highly simplified modern issue encroaches on this homeland paradise. It is soon banished by the sheer goodness of a main character that embodies the values that make Germany strong — faith, home, family, truth and justice. Our movie versions of Heidi approximate the format.
Some of the ‘New German Directors’ of the early 1970s took the Heimat format as a starting point to criticize the establishment of the time, especially Uwe Brandner’s paranoid satire Ich liebe dich, ich töte dich (I Love You, I Kill You), in which a happy village is revealed to be in a state of social tyranny, as if the blind love of Heimat and a willful ignorance of political complexity is what led to the rise of Hitler.
In the bitter war recovery years the German population had need of entertainment to lift their spirits, hopeful stories to put their country in a positive light. Thus we have Ernst Marischka’s Sissi trilogy, which reaches into the distant past to give a highly sentimentalized and simplified account of Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary. A troubled life is transformed almost into a fairy-tale, reducing most of ‘Sissi’s’ problems to conflicts of the heart. Brightly lit, lavishly produced, the three-film saga of Sissi is at times a glorious pageant — everyone we see wears formal clothing at all hours of the day, and the strongest demonstration of affection is a kiss. Writer-director Marischka centers everything on Sissi’s good country instincts – she was born a princess, and yet was raised by a Duke with solid homeland values. Thus we’re on the side of our virtuous heroine as she clashes with imperious relations and stifling court etiquette. Sissi is a super-Heimat heroine, a Wonder Woman for the West German reconstruction.
Largely unknown here, the movies are a showcase for Germany’s star phenomenon of the 1950s, Romy Schneider. We know her from her later Hollywood comedies and a handful of classics by name directors, but in 1955 Schneider personified a positive future for her country. Only seventeen years old in the first film, she combines devastating beauty with an energetic, playful personality. With slightly more baby fat than in her adult continental pictures, she exudes a spirit of innocent delight and innate wisdom — her princess is pampered but definitely not spoiled. When Sissi is displeased, the darkness that crosses her face can’t be ignored. The new The Sissi Collection brings all three of the films together in a beautiful new restoration.
The first film Sissi wastes no time setting up its fairy-tale premise. It begins with Elisabeth, aka “Sissi” meeting her future husband Emperor Franz Josef of Austria (Karlheinz Böhm) and ends with their wedding. Sissi’s fussy but adorable mother Duchess Ludovika (Magda Schneider) and Franz Josef’s cold and controlling mother Archduchess Sophie (Vilma Degischer) plot to marry off Franz to Sissi’s beautiful, deserving sister Helene, known as ‘Nene’ (Uta Franz). But Franz and Sissi accidentally meet out in the country, and Franz immediately falls in love. How can he get his demanding mother to approve his choice, and how will poor Nene accept the humiliation of being passed over?
Everything is sweetness and light in Sissi. Her father Max (Gustav Knuth) holds a nightly beer call for his friends, the family is a pack of happy kids and Sissi’s tomboyish rejection of royal formalities is accepted with only a little eye-rolling. Sissi loves animals and rides horses like a champion; her idea of a good time is a hike with Pop, so she can talk him out of shooting deer and game fowls. Not for a moment does Sissi lay a trap for Franz Josef; her romantic notions are earnest and pure. Their romance is as natural as a high school crush, yet as formalized as two figures on a wedding cake.
The writing and acting are excellent — everybody loves Sissi except perhaps her mother-in-law, and even she has only the best of intentions. Sissi keeps getting told that crushing responsibilities await her in the palace in Vienna. What we mainly see is pomp and circumstance. Franz Josef is always smiling, smitten by his Bavarian angel; it’s fascinating just to see how many ways Romy Schneider’s Sissi can be made to look beautiful — no idealized image of a fairy tale princess is as radiant. She’s always popping into the next room to be made ready to receive guests, and returning in some incredible hairdo that must have taken hours to put together. If German toy companies didn’t manufacture Sissi paste-up dolls to allow her to change outfits, somebody missed a bet.
Designed for family audiences, the film is also given a number of comic interludes. Local policeman Major Böckl (Josef Meinrad) is a buffoon, yet earns our respect for his total devotion to Sissi. When she leaps into the more upscale life in Vienna, the Major comes along to provide comic relief stammering out his loving admiration. In the third picture the Major woos three girlfriends in three countries – and then leaves them. It’s supposed to be funny.
Sissi: The Young Empress (Sissi – Die junge Kaiserin) complicates the idealized (largely fabricated) marriage of Franz and Sissi. They’re deeply in love, but court matters allow them to see little of each other. Sissi is lectured and guided by her mother-in-law Sophie, who considers her immature and incorrigible because she doesn’t adapt her private life to the pomp and ritual of court behavior. But Sissi is a great asset to the Empire, making peace with newly defeated Hungary (this is the Austro-Hungarian Empire we’ve read about) by convincing Josef to grant amnesty to the political opposition. She personally charms the remaining rebel factions — while also winning the heart of the Hungarian Count Andrassy (Walther Reyer). The big marital spat occurs when Sophie unilaterally takes away Sissi’s first baby, a girl, to be raised separately. Sissi rebels, running home to daddy in Bavaria and forcing Franz to come for her. Sissi’s ‘bourgeois’ values eventually prevail against the undesirable palace rules. She also ‘conquers’ Hungary so thoroughly that Franz Josef can travel there without fear of assassination. To match the first film’s concluding wedding, Die Junge Kaiserin concludes with her triumphant coronation as Hungary’s queen, all due to Sissi’s diplomatic charms.
Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (Sissi – Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin) takes the saga several steps further, introducing discordant elements that in no way cover the trials and travails endured by the historical Empress Elisabeth. In this fairy-tale version, Sissi spends undue time with Count Andrassy in Hungary simply to escape the oppressive formalities in Vienna; she returns immediately when Andrassy declares his love. On the way back she meets Josef by chance, as he was personally coming to retrieve her. But Sissi is stricken by Tuberculosis, and to keep her from infecting her loved ones she is sent alone to Madeira to recover. Her depression fades when her mother comes to be with her, and soon she is well enough to walk and travel. In Corfu her doctor declares her cured. Franz is unhappy when, instead of simply bringing her home, diplomatic necessity requires them to travel immediately to Italy (actually, Lombardy-Venetia), to try to prevent a war. The Royals must resist the insults of the crude and rude Italians, at an Opera rigged to snub them. But when Sissi is reunited with her daughter in Venice, breaking protocol to embrace her in the middle of a public ceremony on a grand piazza, she wins the hearts of all Italy as well.
The Sissi films are situated somewhere between reality and Cinderella. Seeing 10,000 Venetians go “Ahh!” on seeing Sissi embrace her daughter ends the trilogy on a high note, with Romy Schneider’s Sissi representing Love and Life as they should be. The whole trilogy is of course wishful thinking of the highest order, a national morale booster that was so popular, naysayers didn’t bother to point out the historical whitewash being enacted. Even the details seem somewhat spurious. Sissi’s brother marries a bourgeois actress, so daddy Max fixes things by having her granted a noble title. The point may be that the actress is Jewish — if her name ‘Mendel’ is an accurate indicator. Am I on thin ice here taking the name as a clue, or is the movie trying to give the impression that, at least in Sissi’s Bavarian family, there is no anti-Semitism?
It’s obvious that a glorious past of harmonious empire would be attractive in 1955, when recent history was too awful to contemplate and many Germans had little faith left for any notion of a future. The fantasy in the Sissi pictures is the one in which Royals rule because their subjects love them, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Reading up just a bit on the historical Franz and Sissi, we see an Emperor with an enormous beard and a beautiful Empress who kept up her looks and appearance for her entire life. But the movie’s grand romance is largely fabricated — Franz did pass by Nene in favor of her little sister (cue the Elvis song) but Sissi apparently never returned his love in kind. She instead tried to find ways to escape the palace altogether, and spent long periods in Hungary.
Meanwhile, the Empire and Europe as a whole was a bloody mess of rebellions and wars that created the crooked stack of alliances that eventually led to the First World War. Louis Napoleon tricked Josef’s brother Maximillian into accepting the role of Emperor of Mexico. Maximillian apparently believed the nonsense that Mexicans were crying out for an Emperor, and ended up on the wrong side of a Juarista firing squad. In 1914, just a year or two before Franz Josef died, his nephew Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in the Balkans. A government minister then persuaded the ancient Franz Josef into signing paperwork that led to the outbreak of war.
Sissi wasn’t a continental Pollyanna who created peace with charm and a sentimental good example. She was widely admired and did present an image of harmony, but history was cruel to her. One child — the beloved daughter in the trilogy — died at an early age. Much later, her only son Rudolf killed himself in a notorious suicide pact with his lover, in the scandalous Mayerling Incident. And Sissi herself was assassinated in Geneva in 1898. The Sissi movies don’t suppress all this bad news, they merely tiptoe around it. To create a ‘happy story,’ a marriage becomes a grand romance, glorified with ‘meet cutes.’ Grim episodes of the story are simply not addressed, and three exultant finales were chosen to leave the audience with smiles on their faces.
I’ve yet to see the Sissi films compared to the Heimat movie Die Trapp-Familie (1956), which performs a similar revision on events of the immediate Nazi era. Sissi seems benign compared to the Hollywood version The Sound of Music, where folk music fools the Gestapo, and an escape from Nazi oppression is achieved by a happy hike through the hills. By contrast, the historical schmaltz of Sissi is inoffensive, benign.
I’ve always thought Romy Schneider to be utterly devastating, even in what are considered lesser roles in the comedies What’s New Pussycat and Good Neighbor Sam. She also shines in Visconti’s classic episode in Boccaccio ’70. Schneider didn’t have the happiest movie star life either. She did have a knack for choosing important directors and daring roles. If they ever allow The Infernal Trio (Le trio infernal) to be screened again, don’t miss it — it’s unbelievably gruesome. The same goes for The Old Gun, where Schneider comes to a horribly traumatic end. Capping the ‘sad’ chronicle of Ms. Schneider is Bertrand Tavernier’s La mort en direct, a cautionary, poetic science fiction story.
Karlheinz Böhm is of course the same Karl Boehm from Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom. Here he’s a picture perfect Prince Charming, a perpetually grinning yet sympathetic and likable Emperor. Franz Josef believes in honor, fair play and democratic values, under an all-powerful monarch, of course. We like Franz because he maintains utter faith in Sissi even when his mother spreads gossip about a non-existent affair in Hungary. He’s also kind to Nene, when he discovers that she has not married because she’s still in love with him.
We can tell that Count Andrassy is Hungarian because all the Hungarian nobles wear half-capes over one shoulder. The handsome actor Walther Reyer is already known to avid American Fritz Lang fans: he plays the obsessed Indian prince that tries to possess temple dancer Debra Paget in Lang’s epic The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb.
Film Movement’s Blu-ray of The Sissi Collection is a marvelous restoration of films popular with European fans — the nostalgia factor for the movie in Germany is off the charts. The shows are handsomely produced, with large-scale crowd scenes and enormous sets; Franz and Sissi dance to Strauss waltzes, not all of which are anachronistic. The high-key cinematography dotes on devastating close-ups of Schneider, and flatters the other actresses as well.
The restoration brings out accurate Agfacolor hues, which are softer and more muted than Eastmancolor. Happily, Film Movement has retained two versions of each film, in different aspect ratios. They call the flat encoding the ‘original’ although it’s obvious that the 1:78 widescreen version is what was projected in theaters — every shot is composed for widescreen, including the titles. Only a handful of shots have problems, just a couple of dissolve transitions and a shot on a Bavarian hill where it looks as if a lesser film element had to be substituted. Otherwise all three pictures are in glorious condition, image and sound.
The extras add greatly to the impression of the Sissi films. A fourth Blu-ray disc contains the 1954 movie Mädchenjahre einer Königin (The Story of Vickie or Victoria in Dover), restored to the same high level as the trilogy. It comes off as a London-set trial run for the Sissi films. Romy Schneider plays young Princess Victoria, a similar Royal-to-be beset with palace difficulties. But the difficulties of assuming queenly power are just details compared to the importance of Vickie’s ‘meet cute’ with her husband-to-be Prince Albert of Sachsen-Coburg (Adrian Hoven). It’s all light and funny and Schneider is charming in almost the exact same way. The German filmmakers interpret English politics as stuffy and more conspiratorial, and add the observation that Victoria’s healthy German heritage gives her the pluck and courage to cut through annoying protocol and petty treachery. Oddly enough, Schneider’s leading man Adrian Hoven would also go on to work in horror pictures, a couple of them with Jesús Franco.
And finally, a fifth disc gives us a contemporary making-of featurette about the second Sissi film. It is accompanied by the Paramount release Forever My Love, a ragged condensation of the three films for the American market. It’s dubbed in English and given a gloppy pop tune by Burt Bacharach, and is a mess to be avoided. It’s also definitely un-restored.
The more vintage foreign films I see, the more it is obvious that the United States actively shunned and dismissed anything made outside Hollywood and London. A pamphlet essay by Farran Smith Nehme helps enormously in understanding the Sissi phenomenon. She describes the series as a Heimat as well. Better yet, Nehme explains how Romy’s mother Magda had been a major star right through the war years, and definitely guided Romy’s career launch. She plays her mother, and in the Victoria movie, a beloved governess. According to Nehme Magda would have liked to continue the series but after three shows Romy called a halt. Typecasting would not seem to have been a problem, because Romy Schneider is always bigger than the role. Even before the series finished she was acting in starring roles opposite Horst Buchholz, Hans Albers and Paul Hubschmid, not to mention Lili Palmer in a version of Mädchen in Uniform. Then came Alain Delon, which opens another chapter in her life.
The films of The Sissi Collection have a great appeal even beyond Romy Schneider’s starring performance; I think it helps us to see an entertainment helping a nation to heal. I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s a historical whitewash, as there’s no rule that movies have to be responsible in that way. The Sissi films do not pretend to be anything but fantasies of wishful thinking – which is what 99% of commercial films consist of anyway. I found the unabashed sentiment involving, and Romy Schneider an utterly winning teenaged star.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Sissi Collection
Supplements: additional films The Story of Vickie and Forever My Love; featurette From Romy to Sissi and docu excerpt Elizabeth, Engigma of an Empress with the great-grandson of the historical Elisabeth.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 12, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson