Monday, 9 January 2017

Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (4½ Stars)


The first Sissi film is a relatively accurate portrayal of the life of Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, nicknamed Sissi, and her ascension to Empress of Austria at the age of 16. The second film shows the birth of her daughter a year later, but mixes in details that didn't happen until 12 years later. Now we arrive at the third film, and it's a total kuddelmuddel of events that happened during the first 15 years of her marriage. Yes, I know "kuddelmuddel" isn't an English word, but it ought to be. Even though it's German it's immediately obvious what's meant.


Because of the repeated anachronisms throughout it's difficult to say when the film is supposed to take place. The only hint we have is the age of her daughter Sophie. How old does she look to you? The actress is Helga Jesch, who played two roles in the film, but I've been unable to find details of her exact birth date. From her appearance she looks like she's three, but she speaks relatively clearly, so she may be four. It's possible that she was used for two different roles (also the daughter of Sissi's brother Ludwig) because she was able to speak at such a young age.

That would place the intended date of the film in the late 1850's, probably 1858. This deviates strongly from Sissi's real life. Sophie was born on March 5th 1855. Sissi's second daughter, Gisela, was born on July 12th 1856, so Sissi should have had two daughters in the film. Or maybe only one, because Sophie died on May 29th 1857. The film obviously wants to glamorise Sissi's life by omitting the family tragedy.


The third Sissi film, the final part of the trilogy, begins with Sissi spending time in Hungary, away from her husband, after being crowned as Queen of Hungary in the second film. When her best friend, Count Andrasy of Hungary, professes that he loves her she decides to return to Austria. Her husband meets her half way, and they spend some time together. After that tragedy strikes. Sissi becomes ill (tuberculosis) and is advised to move to a warmer climate. She spends a few months in Madeira, then Corfu, where she profits from the sea air but is barely able to leave her hotel. During this time Franz Josef's mother advises her son to start looking for a new wife. Can't she wait?

Eventually Sissi recovers after a visit from her mother. Franz Josef goes to collect his wife, but he decides that instead of taking her home directly he should visit the areas of northern Italy currently occupied by Austria. The subjects are rebellious against Austria, but he thinks Sissi can win them over. The first visit is to Milan, where the Emperor and Empress are snubbed by the nobles, who refuse to meet them. However, in a meeting after an opera performance Sissi manages to win the hearts of the common people, making the nobles wish they had met her. Then they travel to Venice, where they are also greeted rudely, but when the crowds see Sissi meet her daughter Sophie they applaud her and shout "Long live Mama".

Interwoven with the main story there are subplots about other members of Sissi's family. Her older brother Ludwig has married an actress -- scandal of scandals! -- so she has to be made a noble. She becomes the Countess of Wallersee, a new title invented for her. Sissi's older sister Helene is still single, despite a long on-off relationship with the Count of Thurn and Taxis.


Comic interlude is provided by Colonel Böckl, probably a fictional character, who has advanced in rank from film to film. His primary function is as Sissi's bodyguard, so he accompanies her on her journeys and during her illness. He's portrayed as fiercely loyal to the Empress, but quaintly inept. Wherever he goes he falls in love with a local woman, but just as it's about to get serious he's told that Sissi is moving to another country. He's heartbroken and swears he will never love again, but the first woman who smiles at him in the next country changes his mind.


Almost everything in the film really happened in Sissi's life, but as I already mentioned, the chronology has been mixed up. The illness probably refers to Sissi's travels to Madeira in 1860 and Corfu in 1861. However, she wasn't as ill as the film portrays her. She had a persistent cough which she used as an excuse to leave Vienna. She hated the life in the Austrian court, and she especially hated her mother-in-law Sophie.

The journey to Italy refers to events that happened at an earlier time. The royal couple visited Venice on November 25th 1856 and Milan on January 15th 1857, where they were received rudely, as shown in the film.

Of course, Sissi wasn't Queen of Hungary at this time. Her coronation was on June 8th 1867.

Sissi's sister Helene is single throughout the film. In real life she married the Prince of Thurn and Taxis on August 24th 1858.

In the film Sissi's brother Ludwig is supposed to have been married for two years. They actually married on May 28th 1859, so his sister Helene couldn't have been single while he was married.


The whole film series makes Sissi look like a wonderfully happy young woman swept off her feet by a loving husband who just happened to be the Emperor of Austria. She had a happy family life despite the interference of her mother-in-law. That made Sissi a household name in Germany in the 1950's. People fondly remembered the Empress from the previous Century. The truth about her was less flattering. Franz Josef was a deeply romantic man, and he complained that his wife didn't return his love. Her hatred for court life led to coldness towards her husband. She preferred to travel alone rather than be at her husband's side. The film shows her rejecting the advances of Count Andrasy, but historians are uncertain whether this is true. As Sissi grew older she became obsessed with beauty and fitness, trying desperately to retain the beauty of her youth.


The Sissi film series was cut short in 1957. A fourth film was planned, and it wouldn't have been the last. The actress Romy Schneider could have played Sissi all her life. That's what the public expected. People called her Sissi rather than use her real name. In 1959, when she was still 20, Romy Schneider left Germany and moved to France, despite not speaking a word of French. It was partly because of a relationship with the French actor Alain Delon, but the main reason was to get away from Sissi. She hated the Sissi films that the public loved so much. She considered them trash, and she wanted to be known as a serious actress. I don't find them as bad as she says, but I can understand her not wanting to be typecast.

Romy Schneider
23 September 1938 – 29 May 1982

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