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In Vienna in 1888, Crown Prince Rudolf, the heir apparent to the Hapsburg Empire, is frustrated by both his political and domestic life. Sympathetic to the cause of the progressives pressing for a more democratic government, as well as for the independence of Hungary, he defies his father, the Emperor Franz Josef, by participating in student demonstrations. Furthermore, the failure of Rudolf's politically arranged marriage to the Crown Princess Stephanie of Belgium has driven him to morphine and public debauchery, highlighted by his flagrant affair with a somewhat infamous actress named Mizzi Kaspar. Then one day he meets the beautiful, 17-year-old Baroness Maria Vetsera, whose nouveau riche family is not accepted at court. Shortly after his mother, the Empress Elizabeth, returns from abroad--with Edward, the Prince of Wales, in tow--Rudolf persuades his cousin, Countess Larisch, to arrange a clandestine meeting between him and Maria. Surprised at finding himself in love, Rudolf makes no secret of his feelings, and the affair quickly creates a court scandal. Franz Josef sends Rudolf on a tour of inspection, and Maria is virtually banished to Venice, whereupon Rudolf counters by first appealing to the Vatican for an annulment of his marriage and then seeking sanctuary for him and Maria in France. When both requests are denied, the Empress advises her son to take Maria to Mayerling, the royal hunting lodge secluded in the Vienna woods. While they are there, word arrives that the Hungarian uprising has been suppressed and Rudolf's complicity in it has been discovered by his father. Realizing that any chance for happiness has been destroyed, the lovers form a suicide pact. And, at dawn, on January 30, 1889, Rudolf takes a revolver, shoots the sleeping Maria, and then turns the gun on himself.