The bitter tears of Empress Elisabeth

Black and white photo of Sissi in a dark dress with a very wide skirt and white lace collar, seated on a sofa facing the viewer with a light-coloured dog at her feet.

Over the years I have written numerous times about the inexhaustibly fascinating life of Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898) – a.k.a. Sis(s)i – and its heady amalgam of eccentricity, disaster, glamour, beauty and melancholy. Whenever I do, I get angry comments from Sissi stans who scan the net for narratives that stray from their vision of the suffering Habsburg Madonna. There is no question that the Austrian Empress was shadowed by tragedy, as I have acknowledged, and it is impossible to understand her life without recognising the depression that pursued and frequently overtook her. But God forbid you should disturb these devotees’ image of Our Lady of Sorrows riding side-saddle through a vale of tears by suggesting that – misfortune notwithstanding – Sissi was just really goddam weird, a morbid, capricious, drug-addicted, tattooed narcissist; a high-strung, high-maintenance neurological high-wire act with a generous production budget.

While I never relish messages from Sissi’s self-appointed standard-bearers, I genuinely wonder what they make of the current profusion of Elisabethan offerings, in particular three current German-language screen productions with international reach (plus a recent series by German broadcaster RTL and a new English-language book, Empty Theatre by Jac Jemc). All of them take significant liberties with both the historical account and the popular image of Sissi established by Romy Schneider in a trilogy of Wirtschaftswunder-era films beloved of German-speaking Europe to this day. The last 12 months have given us Netflix series The Empress (showrunner Katharina Eyssen), and the feature films Corsage (director Marie Kreutzer), and Sisi & I (director Frauke Finsterwalder), which just premiered at this year’s Berlinale. Each of them occupies a restricted time span, representing the beginning, middle and end of Sissi’s reign, respectively.

Outdoor image from Netflix series The Empress showing Devrim Lingnau as Sissi in a white blouse, facing the viewer, with Philip Froissant as Franz Joseph in military uniform in profile looking at her.

The Empress arguably hews closest to the sanctified image. Devrim Lingnau persuasively embodies the headstrong teenage Bavarian princess who, having previously been left largely to her own devices, finds herself ill-equipped for married life let alone the unimaginable pressure of being imperial consort. This is very much a costume period drama and while its locations are not the historical settings, they are lavish enough that, as with The Crown, they competently maintain the illusion. The series concentrates on Sissi’s troubled onboarding at court and, like the 1950s trilogy, appoints Franz Joseph’s mother as the villain. So far so faithful, but this depiction also comes with departures from historical fact that contrast sharply with this evident quest for authenticity.

Witness, for example, the mutual passion between Sissi and Franz Joseph in the series, a romantic indulgence at odds with historical reality. We also find a confected episode of ill-fated Archduke Maximilian scheming to take over his brother’s empire and his wife, and an invented lady-in-waiting with revolutionary sympathies who gains the empress’s trust. Sissi’s interest in the underclass jars with the record, so too her engagement in realpolitik (beyond a genuine sympathy for Hungarian liberation). Like the recent Netflix series about Freud, The Empress freely embellishes widely known figures and events that arguably offer drama enough in themselves. Here, after six hours we are still only a few months into Elisabeth’s marriage; a further series is mooted, so will they follow The Crown by swapping out the leads and advancing through the decades?

If you’re impatient for the years of darkness and disquiet to come, two current films may satisfy your curiousity. They bear striking similarities; both are pan-European arthouse co-productions with women directors which foreground previously occluded episodes of the historical narrative. They both use modern music and other anachronisms, rejecting the conventions of period drama and toying with the idea of authenticity itself without proposing alternative histories as such. Each avails itself liberally of the drugs, tattoos, morbidity, narcissism and caprice supplied by an intimate reading of the subject’s life. Each makes much of Sissi’s devotion to her work-outs and beauty treatments, her eating disorder and public fainting, and contains a pivotal scene where the empress cuts her legendarily long hair. Each of them leans into the Diana connection by depicting Sissi’s (documented) visit with the princess’s ancestors at Althorp, where she enjoys breathless horse races and an enigmatic affair with a local.

Interior image from Corsage showing Vicky Krieps as Sissi in a corset, cutting her own hair.

Corsage was first to cinemas. Sissi, as portrayed by Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread), is adrift; her relationships with her husband, children and servants are all conducted at arm’s length. Her only kindred spirit appears to be her cousin Ludwig II, and even there she misreads his affections. As she turns 40 a tactless doctor informs her that this is the life expectancy for a working-class woman of the time. In fact the increasingly spectral Sissi appears to be engineering her own disappearance, clearing her schedule, outsourcing her public appearances to a veiled lady-in-waiting and grooming a railway official’s wife to serve as her husband’s mistress.

While some settings are accurate (Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace), elsewhere Corsage is provocatively ahistorical, unfolding in locations that are clearly, ostentatiously not what they purport to be. “Althorp” appears amid manifestly central European mountains, rather than the barely rolling hills of Northamptonshire I know from visits to my in-laws. Meanwhile the rough, backstage aesthetic of some interior scenes reminded me of the first time I visited Versailles. I was struck by the contrast between the labyrinthine, unadorned passageways and the sumptuous state rooms; passing from one to another felt like stepping out on stage. Corsage suggests that it is in the wings that we should locate the true personae of its subjects rather than their upholstered public avatars. Of course, this and the thin crowd scenes might simply reflect a limited budget. But this asceticism and the numerous post-dated features also seem driven by a kind of belligerence which dares us to take issue, urging us to abandon our preconceptions of historical drama. Strikingly, glass appears prominently in these anachronistic elements – light fixtures, eyewear, windows, doors, camera lenses, syringes – suggesting that we must look through these (literally) transparent distractions to find inner verities.

Visiting a psychiatric institution, Sissi bonds briefly with an inconsolable woman who, like her, has lost a daughter in infancy, yet otherwise the empress appears to be driven by morbid curiosity rather than any profound connection with the downtrodden among her subjects; “the lion doesn’t lose sleep over the opinions of sheep” as she avers. But there is little for us to hold on to. While audiences are surely sophisticated enough not to require every female lead to be likable or relatable, this is main character syndrome to excess, to the exclusion of all else, an exceptionalism that eclipses anything by which a mortal being might be expected to construct a liveable existence.

Interior image from Sisi & I showing Sandra Hüller as Countess Irma Sztáray and Susanne Wolff as Sissi. Both women have striped navy and white long-sleeved tops with long navy skirts and are holding thin white cups.

If Corsage presents a solipsistic drifter consumed by her own psychodrama, Sisi & I – as the title suggests – is essentially a two-hander, shot on 16 mm to create a dreamlike atmosphere. Here we see Sissi (Susanne Wolff) through the eyes of her lady-in-waiting Countess Irma Sztáray (Sandra Hüller, the embodiment of vexed dissatisfaction in Toni Erdmann). Her function is to keep pace with the restless empress, to accompany her as she stalks the landscape for hours at a time; this all squares with the record and even Irma’s seasickness is rooted in reality. As she arrives at Sissi’s idyllic, matriarchal island court (Malta standing in for Corfu) she is subjected to an entrance exam that is at once boot camp and hazing ritual. The most obvious anachronisms here are sartorial; the first image of the film is a corset, but on Corfu it is only gossipy gay Archduke Ludwig Viktor who appears to actually wear them (his drag theatricals ring true, but by this time real-life Sissi had fallen out with her brother-in-law). Long-dead, the other light-loafered Ludwig (II) here appears in spirit only, with a prophetic warning.

Scripted by the director and her husband Christian Kracht (author of Imperium in which he fictionalised Wilhelmine stowaway August Engelhardt), Sisi & I is primarily about friendship between women. But the bond depicted here comes with an enormous imbalance of power, subject to the whims of its manipulative senior partner; at one point Sissi insists that they embark for Algiers (Malta again) because she wants to try a local ice cream. Early on there is a suggestion of The Favourite, as the newcomer supplants a previous lady-in-waiting in the empress’s affections, but with Sissi bestowing and withdrawing her favour like the warmth of the sun, the abusive relationship of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant seems a more apt comparison. The film is a notionally queer reading yet admirably disinterested in examining the point at which relations may have transgressed the limits of passionate female friendships in the moral codes of the time. “Shame,” pronounces Sissi, “is for the bourgeoisie.”

Diet is central once again, with Sissi subsisting largely on thin soup and purging her occasional blow-outs. At one point she is more or less force-fed by her mother (what a treat to see Angela Winkler again!). Sissi’s relentless physical exertion, her beauty routine, her eating disorder were evidently driven less by vanity than a need to reclaim the agency cruelly wrested from her in the early years of her marriage. Sissi’s assassination is extensively foreshadowed throughout the film; when it comes it differs from the known facts in crucial details (no spoilers!). I wasn’t even sure if what I was seeing was deliberate; days later I still don’t know what to make of this scene.

The concurrence and extensive thematic overlap of the two films positively compel comparison. In both cases, variances with the record are conscious authorial choices that draw out some higher truth of the characters (in contrast with the fabrications of The Empress, which appear designed to keep fickle streaming audiences engaged at all costs). To sit scowling in the dark with a pen and pad noting solecisms – like one of my angry correspondents might do – is to misread the directors’ intentions entirely. The comparison between Sissi and Diana that both films evoke (also extensively explored in Andrew Sinclair’s 1998 book Death by Fame) is illuminating. For it is not just their unhappy marital relations, clashes with courtiers, eating disorders, depression and violent death that the two women share, but also the way their respective images have transformed in the public imagination. Most of us can contextualise the artistic swerves of a film like Spencer because, whether we’re actively interested or not, we have absorbed years of inside reports alongside the public record. We expect to see a portrayal that disrupts the sanctified image, otherwise – why bother?

But despite the presence of actors recognisable to monoplex-goers the world over, the public and private Elisabeth remains an Austro-German phenomenon – for now. Sisi & I and Corsage are both end-products of a process of (over-)familiarisation which most English-speakers, say, haven’t experienced; few of us grew up watching Romy Schneider’s portrayal every Christmas, like many Germans have. These new treatments seek to provide rich, subtle shading to selected parts of a portrait that most international audiences don’t even recognise in outline.

For my part, I found Sisi & I the more convincing of the two. Naturally I can’t say with certainty what Sissi was like (and in a Q&A session after the Berlinale screening, director Frauke Finsterwalder said she banned her actors from reading biographies of the empress). But drawing on my assumptions I felt Susanne Wolff better captured Sissi’s restlessness, caprice and neurosis, but just as importantly the crippling depression that engulfed much of her latter life. While Vicky Krieps’s empress radiates sadness, it is melancholy without rigour; it is difficult to imagine this wry, loose-limbed Sissi embarking on a punishing trek.

In either case, stans, you’re probably not going to like what you see in these films, but you know what? You can just ignore them (and me). The lioness is sleeping, the sheep are free to dream whatever they want.


  1. A wonderful erudite, juicy critique as usual James. So lovely to read after all the airhead adulation smacking of the bought and paid for adulation of the media hacks, think reviews of TAR and Cate’s hammy performance as the lesbian cum stand in for every bad male classical music actor on the planet. The silver screen and small screen are permitted by a variety of confections some, as you point out more historically accurate than others. I have been missing your posts. Happy to see this one.

  2. Weiterboy

    A perfectly coherent and well-educated post! For those of us like myself who’ve been obsessed with the real Elisabeth (such as the one depicted in the Haslip or Hamann biographies of the Empress) it’s refreshing to see that there other people who see her for what she was – an endlessly fascinating woman full of flaws, monstrously self centered and vain, and yet utterly compelling. Romy Schneider may have introduced her character to our young lives in her fanous trilogy, but she was far more accurate in Visconti’s Ludwig.
    However the liberties (some of them idiotic)
    taken by the makers of Corsage or The Empress leave some of us more disappointed or dissatisfied than if a more historical approach had been used…
    Kudos again to your blog!
    Greetings from Berlin .

  3. anna karras

    Thanks for these two critiques.

    I’ve only seen Corsage & found the character of Elisabeth disquieting to say the least. Emp. Franz Josef seemed weedy & reedy in contrast to his wife.

    I surprise myself to never having experienced Romy Schneider’s version. Now curious to read any and all biographies, so researching the subject is next.

    Any suggestions?

    Best regards,

    Anna Karras PS Franz Josef was godfather to my paternal grandmother, Viktori

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