Posted by Moira Finnie on April 7, 2010
Now that Spring is here, I can look back on this event with amusement as I recall Daniel Webster’s comment that there “is nothing so powerful as truth—and often nothing so strange” Ain’t it the truth?:
The Real and the Imaginary Elisabeth of Bavaria (1837-1898)
The Scene: My Living Room
The Time: The Late Winter Doldrums
The Occasion: An Intervention
The Participants: My Loved Ones
What prompted this intervention by my family? Shuffling into the living room, none of my near and dear ones seemed to want to meet my eye. As they gently explained, it was time to remember that I’m an American living in the 21st century. “Chuck this new-found interest in moldy royalty, and, well, get back to reality.” Sure, sure, I knew they were right, but still…
Where did it all begin? Was it when I started wearing the tiara around the house? My sudden air of fin de siecle ennui? My curiosity about where to buy a monocle? Was their concern prompted by that tower of teetering books about the Austro-Hungarian Empire? The growing pile of DVDs, biographies, histories and maps of the old Austro-Hungarian empire that made vacuuming around my chair in the corner of the living room more challenging? Or could it have been my desire to draw the family into my new-found fascination with these movies that led them to worry? After all, who wouldn’t be moved by the inherent drama in the demise of one of the oldest royal houses of Europe, thanks in part to nationalism, but also to rampant inbreeding, cultural rot and the military defeat(s) of a once powerful empire?
In any case, for roughly one month this winter, thanks to a recent operation and the enforced recovery period that dictated no driving, little physical strain, and a need to keep from going bananas at home, my choice of movies and reading matter led me to explore the last days of the Royal House of the Hapsburgs, (though there are plenty of them still around). While I enjoyed several of these occasionally confusing movies, I had to resort to actual reading to try to decipher some of the history behind the moving images that beguiled my eyes and what is left of my mind. As I’m sure everyone knows, never look to the movies for anything as slippery as historical facts or reasonable facsimiles of reality.
The Mayerling Effect
It all started with Mayerling (1936-Anatole Litvak), the movie that brought Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, and director Anatole Litvak international renown. A well meaning “friend” had turned me onto sent me the Janus Films Essential Art House, Volume IV boxed set that included a good DVD transfer of Mayerling with easily readable subtitles. You might think I’d be immune to this sort of film after seeing the lavish Terence Young version of this story featuring Catherine Deneuve and Omar Sharif as the star-crossed pair in the deadly 1968 version of this story. This romanticized 1936 version began my slide into an unhealthy interest in the Hapsburgs, as it used realpolitiks as a spring board for embellishing the tale of the actual murder-suicide of the heir to the throne Archduke Rudolf of Austria and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera in January, 1889 (unfortunately for the world, the same year as the birth of Hitler) .
The actual events surrounding the demise of the prince and the baroness, still shrouded in mystery and with documentary evidence under lock and key in the Papal archive, would probably give a Dan Brown or any other conspiracy theorist apoplexy trying to untangle the facts from the myths surrounding the death of the only son of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth. This private tragedy led circuitously to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Hapsburgs’ grip on power. As a result of his apparent suicide, Rudolf’s cousin Archduke Francis Ferdinand (1863-1914), became the heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown. His assassination in Sarajevo, Bosnia on June 28, 1914 by Serbian nationalists touched off the First World War, changing the history of all humanity.
From the first scene, beginning with glimpses of shadows on a wall rather than any claim to historical accuracy, Mayerling was really a showcase for the participants’ captivating talents in this variation on Romeo and Juliet. The Archduke, (Charles Boyer) who was both a sensitive liberal, an advocate of social reform and, in part due to his father’s refusal to allow him any meaningful role in the government, a notorious sybarite. Involved with radical students he is in sympathy with despite his conservative father’s opposition, the young man pursues his debauched amusements out of boredom and as an affront to the constraints of his office. He is forced into a marriage by his father, which does not prevent him from pursuing numerous other women, even as he is watched by secret agents controlled by his repressive father. At a street fair, he encounters the teenage Mary Vestera (Danielle Darrieux) who is unaware of his identity. Her genuine naivete touches him and he finds himself surprisingly attracted to her genuine, guileless nature.
Their mutual attraction and growing involvement to one another is expressed in a series of largely non-verbal but eloquently played scenes set at the fair, a theater, during a church service, and a climactic assignation at a hunting lodge. During a very well staged scene set at a ballet, the prince spies the girl he had met briefly and anonymously in a box opposite his own. Transfixed by her, the pair are clearly drawn to one another as the girl recalls the happiest moments of their previous meeting in a moment that seems to show this experience from the point of view of the angelic girl and the jaded but intrigued man of the world. Initially assuming that he can seduce and forget this girl, as he has before, Rudolf arranges for her to have a clandestine meeting alone with him. However, faced with her gentle concern for him in a scene that would normally simply end in seduction, he finds himself drawn into a true love affair. The pair met with considerable censor from their families, since Vestera was under age, and especially since Rudolf was already in a rather hopeless, arranged marriage. His parents, rather unsympathetically played by Gabrielle Dorziat as Empress Elisabeth and Jean Dax as Emperor Franz Josef, were also understandably opposed to this liaison, but their despair over the Archduke’s activities seems to make his pursuit of this self-destructive path more inevitable. Somehow, the film transcends the urge to shrug your shoulders with a “heigh-ho, such is life” attitude as it tells what might have been a leaden or simply gossipy, even sordid story and you start to care about the characters, however much your rational brain wonders about the truth of the matter.
Mayerling was directed by Anatole Litvak, a highly entertaining and occasionally very stylish filmmaker, who was born in Kiev in 1902. After an education in philosophy and experience in the theater and the cinema in St. Petersburg as well as Germany, where he worked with G.W. Pabst, among others, he decided to move permanently to Europe, and after the success of the French-made Mayerling, Hollywood returned his calls. Perhaps in part because of the upheavals he had personally witnessed in Russia, he made several memorable movies about the disintegration of societies large and small, and the people who were swept up in these waves of change. Sometimes the director seemed to focus on telling stories based on the fictionalized consequences of history’s shifts, as he did in Anastasia, Mayerling, Decision Before Dawn, and Night of the Generals. Other times Litvak crafted films that presented the private outcomes of shifting personal alliances, as he did in All This and Heaven Too, The Snake Pit, Goodbye Again, and even the engaging Blues in the Night.
Not generally regarded as an “important” filmmaker, Litvak seems to have been a highly skilled craftsman whose great strength was his ability to draw excellent performances from many diverse players, using his camera fluidly and capturing the best from actors in comedies (Is anyone else partial to 1937′s Tovarich, for instance?) and dramas, (City for Conquest (1940) is a particular fave for some of us). In Mayerling, the director was blessed with Charles Boyer, acting in his native language, with considerably more ease than he then exhibited English-speaking movies. Seeing Boyer in French-made films such as Liliom (1933-Fritz Lang), and The Earrings of Madame de… (1953-Max Ophuls), his supple talent and nuanced characterizations when he had a chance to perform in his native language was impressive. Paired in Mayerling with 17 year old Danielle Darrieux*, who would play his wife in The Earrings of Madame de… some 18 years later (in one of the best movies of either performer’s career), the actors played characters who could easily have been annoyingly dense or selfish. However, their ability to inspire sympathy probably had little to do with the reality of geopolitics behind the romantic haze. And naturally, once this illicit taste for hazy history through the gauzy lens of movies had been satisfied, I needed a bigger rush.
The Sissi Phenomenon
For a “deeper” understanding of history, I soon moved on to the Technicolor “truth” that blinded me in the Sissi movie series, which were highly popular, if kitschy and sentimental movies, though little known to Americans today. A staple of Christmas programming on European television for decades, these were made in the ’50s by Austrians in the postwar era. Writer-Director Ernst Marischka was one of several movie makers who were idealizing their country’s imperial past in that decade, (and, of course, the 19th century was a popular setting in American movies of the same period as well). The filmmakers created these Kaiserfilm, or imperial epics, in part in response to an underlying need to help reconstruct a shattered cultural identity after WWII. In the reconstruction period following the disastrous war, it was understandable that people had mixed emotions about their country, with national discouragement and new hope mingling in postwar Austria and Germany. The Sissi films seemed to help people to focus on something positive, even if it fudged the history a bit. Cannily, these movies also tapped into the cult of Sissi (sometimes spelled “Sisi”) that has grown since the time when the real Empress Elisabeth lived a troubled life–but that was in the pesky real world.
In terms of cultural insight, the Sissi movies were also inspired by a fresh interpretation of the traditional feeling among German-speaking people for “heimat.” The word is not really translatable into English, though inevitably after fascism, it had fallen into disrepute. The Sissi movies used the older, pre-Anschluss meaning of “heimat” to convey a sense of identity with one’s family, the earth, the very landscape, and the community to tell their story, focusing on the personal rather than the political in these lavishly produced and glossy history lessons. They could be interpreted as conservative in their glorification of royalty, and as a reaction to the rising tide of modernity, loss of individuality and intimate community. Despite this, one of the key points of dramatic tension in each of the movies is the clash between traditional formal behavior and the young Sissi’s instinctive desires to be free of the past’s restrictions and to live naturally conveyed so well by the films’ star.
Maybe it was just post-operative fuzziness that affected me–do people really like these meds?–but I was a real goner when I discovered Sissi (1955-Ernst Marischka), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956-Ernst Marischka), and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957-Ernst Marischka). I’m tempted to blame Romy Schneider for all this. It was, in large part, Schneider‘s beauty, vitality and warmth that sucked me into this strange, fairy tale trilogy. Around seventeen at the time of the production of the first of the Sissi movies, Schneider, who had been in movies since she was fifteen, became one of the biggest stars in Europe, particularly in German-speaking countries after these movies were released in the mid-fifties. They didn’t make much of a dent on the American market, in part because this country is always a bit fuzzy on non-English speaking history, and the movies were released in one ungainly compilation film called Forever My Love in 1962 that featured muddy colors and lots of strange continuity thanks to a condensation of action. Even this movie was spottily distributed beyond big cities, but in 2007, a good Agfacolor restored edition of each of these movies, with easy to read subtitles, became available in R1 DVDs. After discovering a beautifully, highly colored (in every sense) DVD of the first Sissi (1955), I devoured it like a linzertorte.
The films only dealt with the youthful part of the life of Elisabeth of Austria, avoiding completely the violent deaths of both Rudolf and Elisabeth, and dismissing some of the complications in the lives of the monarchs as “too problematic,” according to Ernst Marischka. The first movie followed her surprise engagement and marriage to Franz Josef. The second movie concentrated on her deepening relationship with her husband and her sympathy for the subjugated Hungarians who were absorbed into the empire. In the third film, the birth of her daughter, her separation from her husband following misunderstandings and her strange illness brought some drama to the story, and their eventual reconciliation allowed the highly edited version of these lives a happy ending. Sounds sappy, right? Not quite, thanks to the movies’ lightness of style, good acting and glorious production values. Then again
It might have been that low grade fever I had for a day or two, but, like those eternally seductive Disney movies of the fifties and sixties, this movie’s spectacular Austrian vistas of verdant forests, fields, and mountains cast a lingering spell that was hard to ignore. Each glorious, flower bedecked meadow, babbling brook and ancient forest looked as though it was just waiting for the location team for the production of The Sound of Music to show up some years later. Why, we even have zither music played by Sissi when she is entertaining the Emperor after they first “meet cute”, with neither realizing the identity of the other until after they have fallen in love. Some of the scenes that were set in the Tyrolian mountains also made me think of the Mountain films of earlier decades in Germanic film history. Actually, the whole series of Sissi movies could readily have been adapted into a musical, if it hasn’t been already.
Strangely, I kept waiting for some hints of the darker future of the Austro-Hungarian empire to be dropped in one of these movies, though not a bit of real world foreshadowing was detectable by me. Sure, there were a few malcontents mentioned who might be a threat to the Emperor, but real world recent events of the period, like the Revolutions of 1848 that had recently swept Europe in the period of the film, are pretty much ignored. Any danger to the monarch in the movie was supposed to be averted by an annoyingly heavy-handed comic relief character captain (Josef Meinrad) who shadowed Franz Josef, cramping his romantic style and cluttering up the screen with some comic shtick that made El Brendel look suave. Good time to make some tea when this guy is on screen.
This first movie in the series may also have appealed to me because of the Disneyesque depiction of an idyllic, relaxed home life in the opening scenes of Sissi. The movie introduced the Bavarian household of the von Wittelsbachs, who were considered “minor royalty,” though they had apparently intermarried with every other aristocrat around. The Walt Disney factor seemed alive on screen as scads of happy children frolicked across the screen getting into mischief, followed by a clucking mother, Duchess Ludovika, (played with considerable skill by Schneider’s actual mother, Magda Schneider), a loving, if lackadaisical father, Duke Max (Gustav Knuth), and an aristocratic, somewhat remote older sister Nene (Uta Franz) who was marked for an arranged marriage to the emperor. The emperor was played by Karlheinz Böhm, (seen at right), an interesting actor, noted for his role as Peeping Tom (1960) in Michael Powell’s film, but also a man who has appeared in a series of Disney programs about the Brothers Grimm, as well as several of the intriguing films he made with his friend, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Btw, the actor had his name anglicized to Carl or Karl Boehm in English and American movies. His tender rapport with Romy Schneider also helped to elevate what might have been saccharine, perfunctory courtship scenes to a level of spontaneity that was sustained throughout the movie. The warmth between the two leads reflected some of their affection for one another off screen. Because he was a decade older than Schneider, she teasingly called him “Uncle Karlheinz” between setups. Their characters’ romantic attraction to one another is quite believable, albeit in a G-rated way that we are not entirely comfortable with in this more explicit age.
Böhm also conveyed the isolation and loneliness in his character’s role as head of state, as well as Franz Josef’s need to continuously appease and separate himself from the wicked witch his mother, Archduchess Sophie, who was played with a dazzling, if steely lack of self-doubt by Vilma Degischer. The scenes between Degischer and Schneider as the older woman points out that her prospective daughter-in-law that she is quite short and that her teeth could be whiter are just a chilling taste of the dueling for power and autonomy that would become a part of their daily lives. The first film ends with an extravagant wedding filmed at St. Michael’s Church in Vienna that could easily have been a template for a similar scene in The Sound of Music (1965).
Elisabeth of Austria & Romy Schneider
The casting of the luminous teenage Romy Schneider (1938-1982) as the leading character was a key to the success of these films, since she radiated beauty as well as an innocent, natural charm that was–and is–captivating. Schneider, whose own brief life had many tragic parallels to that of Elisabeth, would loathe the part that brought her fame, complaining that “Sissi sticks to me like porridge.” Often called “Sissi” instead of by her own name in the cinematic press of the time, Schneider became associated with all things “clean and naive, virginal and girlish.” It probably didn’t help that Romy Schneider‘s mother, Magda constantly gave interviews saying things like “this child has not yet been in touch with the filth of this world.” Inevitably, a change was needed if the younger actress was to be accepted as a modern figure in the movies.
Eventually, the gifted actress, who once felt that she was permanently typecast as a sweet gamine in her native land, would make a few American movies, but would make her mark playing a series of sophisticated roles, particularly in French movies such as Cesar et Rosalie (1972) and Une histoire simple (1978), as her subtlety and mature beauty grew with time.
Both Elisabeth and Romy Schneider were legendary beauties who spent their lives hounded by the press while also trying to manipulate public opinion as well. Each of them lost their only sons, with the apparent suicide of Prince Rudolf at the age of 31 and the accidental death of Schneider‘s son David at the age of 14 when he was impaled on a fence. Empress Elisabeth, who would escape the confines of court life by incessant traveling and toleration of her husband’s liaisons, ended her life at 59 in 1898 when she was the victim of an attack by an anarchist who stabbed her in Switzerland. Schneider would die at only age 43 in 1982 of heart failure, though speculation over the role of grief in her demise continue to swirl.
Finally both women would also become historical icons in the fame sweepstakes, and one wonders how they would feel about it. Each are memorialized continuously by their acolytes to this day, with exhibits about their lives appearing in various settings, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum to Romy Schneider: Vienna-Berlin-Paris, a current show at Berlin’s film museum that runs through the end of May, 2010 to present day tours being marketed to lead tourists to parts of Germany, Austria and Hungary where the real Sissi once lived. Just last year, a biopic called Romy was broadcast on German television and, while numerous movies have been made about Elisabeth, it would be tempting to see how modern filmmakers might tackle the contradictions in Empress Elisabeth’s character and the problems she was faced with during her life.
The actual Elisabeth married her first cousin in 1854 when she was a mere 16. More remarkably, the marriage took place after her elder sister Nene aka Helene, had been presented to the young Franz Josef (r. 1848-1916) as a potential spouse and it was clearly a love match on both sides. Marriage to a close family relative was a common practice among royals at the time, since commoners were likely to diffuse the bloodlines, appropriate royal treasures, and were…well…so common–though an infusion from a larger, more diverse gene pool might have helped matters considerably. Sissi herself was often regarded as a victim of rigid royal tradition and one of the greatest beauties of the 19th century as the popular media and her own personality merged into a myth comparable to the recent obsession with Diana, Princess of Wales. Elizabeth’s initial openness, intelligence and beauty, as well as her ability to sit a horse well, were no match for the imperial court’s formality and the demands of her position, though her efforts to liberalize her husband’s rule–particularly after the monarchs also become rulers of Hungary, are now generally acknowledged by historians and are important in the second of the films in this series.
In time, the stresses of her position and conflicts with her mother-in-law, the Archduchess Sophie, led her to become increasingly melancholy, remote and self-conscious on imperial occasions. Eventually this led her to , withdraw into private pursuits such as riding, reading, and obsessing over keeping her exceptional beauty intact through strict beauty and diet regimens. In the Sissi movies, these issues come to the fore after the birth of the couple’s first child, whose care is usurped by the Archduchess when she has the baby girl’s nursery removed to her wing of the palace. This conflict, which has a basis in fact, became greater in time, as the older woman and her courtiers spied on the Empress, and care of later children was also taken away from Elisabeth while it was impressed on her that her presence at far flung events throughout the empire was required. In the second film, as in life, Elisabeth eventually developed a mysterious illness, (it may have been tuberculosis, or, as some historians believe, it may have been a bout of clinical depression). The empress was then allowed a series of recuperative trips abroad, and, the freedom and cultural stimulation that she enjoyed there helped her to recover. Though the Sissi movies deal with a misinterpretation by others of some of the empress’ relationships, particularly with a Hungarian patriot, there is really never any hint of the lasting effect of her absences on her marriage. Good fairy tales that they are, the royal couple ultimately remain devoted to one another, though there are moments when Sissi returns to her parents’ home and lives abroad for a time. Real life was considerably more interesting and sadder, as both became older.
You would have thought that my appetite for this topic might have been sated by the admittedly forced majestic ending of the third Sissi movie, Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957). Still, when I then realized that there was even another, more adult form of this cinematic addiction to Sissi’s life and times, created by a director who was truly an artist, I couldn’t order it fast enough from Netflix. The movie even gave a grown up Romy Schneider a pass to play Sissi again; this time as a woman in her mid-thirties in Luchino Visconti‘s beautiful if lumbering Ludwig (1972). This lavish depiction of the life of Ludwig II (1845-1886), (“Mad Ludwig”), another cousin of Sissi and the King of Bavaria, who escaped the pressures of the crown by building–if rarely finishing–castles, funding the operas of an ungrateful Wagner (the composer was played with some exhausted grandeur by Trevor Howard), and occasionally dancing around with his posse of pals in lederhosen, or so Visconti tells us, though decadence never quite looked this boring before.
The movie starred the handsome if remote Helmet Berger as the enigmatic, morbidly eccentric and agonizingly shy monarch in the massive role of Ludwig, who was enamored of his cousin the Empress. Under pressure to marry, the possibly bisexual Ludwig even became briefly engaged to Elisabeth’s sister, though he wisely broke it off when his own dark personal issues became overwhelming. The beautifully produced movie, filmed in enormous detail on location in various palaces, retreats and settings where the principals lived, really sprang to pulsing life only when Romy Schneider appeared to share a brief moment of communion with her temperamental royal relative. Schneider played the role of Sissi this time as a complex, neurotic, woman whose understanding of life has increased, along with her capacity for imperious and cryptic remarks, but delivered in a way that makes Ludwig’s reputed passion for her understandable.
Fortunately for me this very long, latter day Visconti movie is no Ossessione (1943), Senso (1953), or Death in Venice (1973). Roger Ebert once claimed that even after being cut by American distributors, Ludwig (1972) was “so lethargic and persistently uninteresting that members of the audience were moved to whistle, yawn loudly and visit the water fountain.” I saw the restored version, and enjoyed it–in small doses over the course of about two weeks. Due to this immersion therapy and gradual diminution of my exposure to all things Sissi, I can now thank Visconti for helping me to break the hypnotic trance I’d been in, along with all those diaries, bios and histories I’d checked out of the library–and even they came due eventually.It also helped that my driving privileges were restored after I received a thumbs up from my doc. It’s amazing how the dust of history can be shaken off once you get behind the wheel and jump back into the 21st century rat race. Even if I still find myself musing at red lights: “Is it Hapsburg or Habsburg?”
*A living French national treasure, Danielle Darrieux, turns 93 on May 1st, and is still making movies today, with two films, Pièce montée and Small World, scheduled for release this year. Veel üks croissant is currently in production and will reportedly be released in 2011. There’s nothing like planning ahead when you are in your tenth decade.
Crankshaw, Edward, The Fall of the House of Habsburg, Viking Press, 1963.
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