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Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress

Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress(1957)


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Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress

Romy Schneider and Karlheinz Bhm returned to the roles that had made them international stars in 1957 for this third film in the "Sissi" trilogy. Although a romanticized view of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed "Sissi," this and the other films are considered German-language classics and continue to be popular on German and Austrian television. Writer-director-producer Ernst Marischka reassembled the same cast and crew from the earlier films, including Schneider's mother, Magda Schneider, as her on-screen mother and Vilma Degischer as the villainous Archduchess Sophie, Franz Joseph's mother.

As the film opens, Sissi has settled into life in Hungary, happy to be away from her mother-in-law and the strictures of life in the Austrian court. When her closest friend there, Count Andrassy, confesses his love to her, however, she feels compelled to return to Austria. On returning home, she develops a case of tuberculosis that requires her to recover in the sunnier climates of Italy under her mother's care. This leads to a trip through the Italian portions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Sissi and Franz Joseph try to overcome the anti-Austrian sentiments of their southern subjects.

As in previous films, Marischka took liberties with history. He had already ignored the emotional strains in the royal marriage and the rumors that both the Emperor and Empress were involved with others, Sissi with Andrassy and Franz Joseph with an actress. Elisabeth's lengthy stay at Castle Godollo in Hungary actually took place after she had stayed in Italy for her health, and her battles with tuberculosis were only rumors, now discounted by many historians. The daughter with whom she is reunited in Italy, Sophie, had actually died shortly after Elisabeth's move to Hungary.

Once again, the film was lovingly photographed in many of the actual locations where the Emperor and Empress lived, though Hungary was off-limits because of political upheavals when the Soviets reasserted control over the Communist bloc nation. This time, Italian locations along the Amalfi Coast, in Ravello, in Paestum, in St. Mark's Square in Venice and at the Villas Cimbone and Rufolo added to the film's picturesque appeal.

Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress did well enough at the box office to spark plans for a fourth film, but both Schneider and Bhm rebelled. Each wanted to tackle more complex roles and destroy the squeaky clean images the Sissi trilogy had given them. How Marischka could have portrayed the characters' later years without betraying the earlier films' romanticized tone is questionable. The Empress' life was marked by tragedy, with her son committing suicide in 1889 at the age of 30 after his father demanded he end his romantic relationship with Baroness Marie Vetsera. Nine years later, Sissi was assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist while she was vacationing in Switzerland. She was only 60. Her death left Franz Joseph shattered.

Bhm's biggest departure from his image came when he starred as a serial killer in Michael Powell's controversial horror film Peeping Tom (1960). Although the picture almost destroyed Powell's career, it didn't keep Bohm from making a brief foray into U.S. films, starting with Vincente Minnelli's remake of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962). His most famous American film was the Cinerama release The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), in which he and Laurence Harvey played the famed storytellers. After a few more film and television appearances in the U.S., he returned to Germany, where he devoted his later years to charitable work to benefit the people of Ethiopia. He also appeared in two films for German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Fox and His Friends and MU (both 1975).

Eventually, Schneider came to hate the Sissi films, resenting her identification with the sweet, innocent character. After refusing to make a fourth Sissi film, she took on the lead in Christine (1958), a remake of Max Ophuls' >I>Liebelei (1933), which originally had starred her mother. She then defied her mother and shocked her many fans by running off with the film's leading man, Alain Deon. She also began taking more adult roles in films like Bocaccio '70 and Orson Welles' The Trial (both 1962). Like Bhm, she tried breaking into U.S. films with roles in Otto Preminger's The Cardinal (1963) and What's New Pussycat (1965). It took until the 1970s, when she appeared in French films like Csar et Rosalie (1972) and Une histoire simple (1978) for her to completely shake her typecasting. She would return to the role of Sissi, albeit in a more jaundiced interpretation, in Luchino Visconti's Ludwig (1973) and claim that his more cynical portrait of the Empress was the only honest one on film. Other later interpretations of the role appear in two episodes of the epic miniseries Fall of Eagles (1974), in which Diane Keen plays the young Sissi and Rachel Gurney plays her at the time of her son's suicide, and the remake of Mayerling (1968), has Ava Gardner in the role.

The Sissi trilogy did not play in their original form in the U.S. Instead, they were edited into a single feature, Forever My Love, in 1962. The film runs almost two and a half hours, while the original trilogy runs over five hours. This is the version given the widest distribution in the U.S. It would be years before the three films would be available to U.S. audiences on DVD. The trilogy inspired a musical, Elisabeth, in 1992, which became the most popular German-language musical of all time. The musical has been recorded for DVD release eight times. In addition, the films were parodied in the German animated film Lissi (2007), in which a yeti becomes obsessed with the Empress.

Director: Ernst Marischka
Producer: Karl Ehrlich, Marischka
Screenplay: Marischka
Cinematography: Bruno Mondi
Score: Anton Profes
Cast: Romy Schneider (Empress Elisabeth of Austria), Karlheinz Bhm (Emperor Franz Josef of Austria), Magda Schneider (Duchess Ludovika of Bavaria), Gustav Knuth (Duke Max of Bavaria), Uta Franz (Princess Helene), Walther Reyer (Graf Andrassy), Vilma Degischer (Archduchess Sophie)

By Frank Miller

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