In the English-speaking world, Elisabeth of Austria, wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, is arguably less known than her cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria. The two shared a dark, melancholic beauty and both preferred luxurious solitude over court formalities and withdrew as much as possible from public life, Ludwig into his dream castles, Elisabeth into ceaseless wanderings around Europe. Their family, the Wittelsbachs, had married so often into the Habsburgs (Franz Joseph’s family) that the gene pool had grown shallow and murky and even by the dangerously in-bred standards of 19th century European royalty they stood out for their flamboyant lunacy.
Today, in Austria and Germany Elisabeth enjoys a widespread cult of veneration under the name Sissi, a phenomenon which reminds you why we take the word “kitsch” from German. This number from André Rieu, the Liberace of the fiddle, may also give you some insight:
Above all, Sissi is associated in the German-speaking world with the trio of 1950s movies based on her life starring Romy Schneider, which appear in Christmas TV schedules with grim inevitability. These films have contributed to a generalised, tourist-friendly 19th century nostalgia whose version of Sissi has all the nuanced sophistication of something knitted to cover a toilet roll. The beautiful Austrian actress would come to hate the role of Empress as much as Sissi herself did, and like her was no stranger to tragedy. Both women were devastated by the loss of an only son; Crown Prince Rudolf died in an apparent murder-suicide with his mistress in 1889, Schneider’s son in an accident in 1981.
The real Empress in fact disdained the idealised Vienna of Strauss waltzes and Sacher torte and cared little for her subjects. The feeling was mutual; Sissi was absent from court for so long that the Austrians more or less forgot about her until after her death.
In Visconti’s 1972 film Ludwig, Romy Schneider once again played Sissi, but this time she was allowed the full run of the empress’s complex persona with all its morbidity, nihilism and caustic irony. In this atmospheric, almost wordless sequence, she revisits her cousin’s palaces:
Sissi longed for her own death, the surprise was that she was felled by an anarchist’s dagger in 1898 before she got round to it herself. Schneider died in 1982 of a mixture of alcohol and sleeping pills, though it’s unclear if it was accident or suicide. The two women are now united in death, peering blankly from a hundred coffee-table books, their manifold idiosyncrasies wiped away to leave them as hollow paragons of goodness and beauty.