Romy Schneider became an international star at the age of 17 when she starred as Austria's Empress Elisabeth in this and two other films. Although it's a decided white washing of history, the film was a huge hit with European audiences, particularly in Germany and Austria, where it was seen as a means of rehabilitating national identities after World War II.
Schneider stars as Elisabeth, nicknamed "Sissi," the second of seven children of Duke Max of Bavaria (Gustav Knuth). She accompanies her mother (Schneider's real life mother, Magda Schneider) and older sister, Helene (Uta Franz), to a resort town where the latter will be engaged to the young Emperor Franz Joseph (Karlheinz Böhm), a relationship engineered by the emperor's mother, Archduchess Sophie (Vilma Degischer). Because of her tomboyish ways, Schneider is forbidden to visit the court, so she spends the vacation frolicking in the mountains, where she meets Bohm without revealing her identity. Before long, the Emperor has fallen for a girl he thinks is a commoner, setting the stage for a series of confrontations with their parents.
The real-life Sissi, Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, was actually the fourth child of the Duke of Bavaria, an eccentric who raised his children with minimal discipline. Although Sissi's sister Helene was Empress Sophie's choice to marry her son, Franz Joseph defied his mother to propose to Sissi. There were no incognito meetings in the woods, however. Rather, he simply found her more attractive than her sister. The House of Bavaria was still in mourning for a recently departed aunt, and the black dresses suited the pale, blond Elisabeth more than her darker sister.
Sissi had previously been played by opera singer Grace Moore in The King Steps Out (1936), a musical farce about the courtship directed by Josef von Sternberg. It co-starred Franchot Tone as the Emperor, Walter Connolly as Elizabeth's father and Elisabeth Risdon as Franz Joseph's mother. To make the film, Columbia Pictures purchased the rights to Ernst Décsey and Gustav Holm's play Sissy's Bridal Journey, which had already been acquired by writer-director Ernst Marischka and introduced most of the same plot departures -- the incognito meetings and the growing romance between Franz Joseph and Sissi -- as the later film. The character was included in several other historical films, most of them German or Austrian. Oddly, she does not appear in Mayerling (1936), the classic French film about the doomed romance of her son, Archduke Rudolph, played by Charles Boyer.
With the rights to the play in Columbia's hands, when Marischka finally got the chance to direct Sissi's story, he turned instead to Marie Blank-Eisman's 1952 novel Sissi, another romanticization of history. Schneider had made her movie debut at the age of 15 in When the White Lilacs Bloom Again (1953), in which she played her real mother's daughter. Playing the young Queen Victoria in The Story of Vickie (1954) brought her her first starring role. Since the film was directed and written by Marischka, she was the natural choice to play the lead in Sissi.
Böhm and Schneider were actually friends off-screen. Since he was ten years older than she, Schneider often referred to him as "Uncle Karlheinz." Böhm, the son of one of the world's greatest symphony conductors, Karl Böhm -- had spent his early teen years in Switzerland to avoid World War II. On his return to Germany, he chose to pursue an acting career, making his screen debut with an unbilled role in The Angel With the Trumpet (1948). His first major role was as Hildegard Knef's love interest in the science fiction film Mandragore (1952), co-starring Erich von Stroheim. Although Böhm had reached leading-man status, it was Sissi that made him an international star.
Marischka shot in many of the places where Empress Elisabeth had lived as a young woman, including the Tyrolean Alps, Schönbrunn Palace and St. Michael's Church in Vienna. The empress' childhood home, Possenhofen Castle on Lake Stamberg, was in such poor condition at the time that scenes set there were actually filmed at Fuschlsee Castle in Salzburg. Under the direction of cinematographer Bruno Mondi, the location shooting was highly praised for the beautiful images captured on screen.
Sissi sold more than 20 million tickets, becoming one of the most successful German-language films ever made. The sequels, Sissi: The Young Empress (1956) and Sissi: The Fateful Years of the Empress (1957), were also successful. Because Empress Elisabeth had been born on Christmas Eve, all three films became holiday perennials on German and Austrian television. In the 1980s, it became a hit again when it premiered on Chinese television. The picture also made the Empress a major pop culture figure and attracted large numbers of tourists to the film's locations.
Director: Ernest Marischka
Producer: Karl Ehrlich, Marischka
Cinematography: Bruno Mondi
Score: Anton Profes
Cast: Romy Schneider (Sissi), Karlheinz Bohm (Kaiser Franz Joseph), Magda Schneider (Duchess Ludovika in Bayern), Uta Franz (Princess Helene in Bahren_, Gustav Knuth (Duke Max in Bavaria), Vilma Degischer (Archduchess Sophie)
By Frank Miller