Sometimes life has twisted ways. You never know where you will end. I studied at the University of Vienna Theatre, Film and Media Theory. My master thesis was called „Kaiserin Elisabeth und ihre Darstellung auf Bühne und Leinwand“ (Depicting Empress Elisabeth on Stage and on Screen)

In the meanwhile, I went on. I’m still dealing with Empress Elisabeth in my daily business but my focus is on exhibitions and museums right now.  Anyway, I’ve read a post on facebook that there will be a symposium on Austrian film. I applied with a paper about the Sissi-trilogy by Ernst Marischka, one of the aspects of my thesis. I am still deeply immerged into this topic as I am talking about these films on a tour in Hofmobiliendepot (Funiture Museum Vienna).

Annie Ring and Frederick Baker chose my paper for „Picturing Austrian Cinema“ and now I had an inspiring weekend in Cambridge. The symposium took place in Queen’s College and was attended by academics and film fanatics from Britain, North America, Germany and Austria.

We were asked just to choose one single still from the film we wanted to talk about. A hard decision as I learnt.  Which still charaterizes the whole film? Do you choose one you can talk generally about or about something special you see just there? As we were shown in the paper of Michael Loebenstein (Director of Österreichisches Filmmuseum/Austrian Film Museum) one image can tell something completely different from the next one.

There were a lot of talks about comtemporary Austrian film makers such as Ruth Beckermann, Ulrich Seidl and of course Michael Hanake who was special guest to this symposium with a screening of „Happy End“ (2017) and Q&A with him afterwards.

But to return to my roots. Heidi Schlipphacke from University of Illinois at Chicago and me were talking about „Sissi“ by Ernst Marischka. It was great to discuss about these films with her and with the delegates. Surprisingly, we both had chosen a still from the second and the third part and none of the first one. I’m still questioning myself, why? Are the two sequels more politically? Do they depict Austria in a more appropriate manner though many scenes are set in Hungary and Italy?

Well, there are still a lot of question to investigate. Seems, I will further deal with this topic.

Feel free to read my paper.

The “Sissi”-Trilogy (1955-1957) by Ernst Marischka – An Austrian Fairytale

If you grew up in Austria, you do not imagine a fairytale princess as one from the tales of the Brothers Grimm or by Walt Disney. You compare her to Empress Elisabeth, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I., depicted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter or to “Sissi”, the image Ernst Marischka created in his films in the mid 1950s.

The history itself sounds like a fairytale. Elisabeth also known by her nickname Sisi, the daughter of a Duke in Bavaria, a duke with few duties and no influence at the Court of Bavaria is chosen to be his wife by her cousin, the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, instead of her elder sister Helene. Little prepared and only 16 years old, she becomes the most important Lady in central Europe. As a quick summary, let me tell you that she did not have a happy ever after and was already typecast to be an ephemeral person in her lifetime. But at least after the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1918 she became famous in literature and was soon depicted in films as well.

And even Ernst Marischka met this figure before WWII. There was a play, a comedy written by Ernst Decsey and Gustav Holm “Sissys Brautfahrt” (You could translate the title as “Sissy’s Wooing Journey”). Nothing historical except the facts that Elisabeth and Franz Joseph met for the first time in Ischl, a small country town near Salzburg and that the betrothal took place there. This comedy is written in the style of an operetta, which is not surprising as both writers are responsible for a lot of operetta libretti. Ernst Marischka and his brother Hubert who owned the “Theater an der Wien” – one of the private theatres in Vienna – saw the potential for an operetta and amended the play. They asked a famous violin-player and composer, Fritz Kreisler, to adapt some of his famous numbers.  It was simply called “Sissy” with two “ss” in the middle and a “y” at the end and premiered shortly before Christmas, with the 24th of December being also the birthday of Empress Elisabeth. It was a real success, one of the last of the era of operettas before WWII.

Rumour has it or at least his nephew Franz wrote in his memoirs that at a family gathering Ernst Marischka was thinking of making another film about Empress Elisabeth. And everybody said: “No, you can’t do this. Nobody needs these old stories about Emperor Franz Joseph. No-one wants to see this sort of film anymore.” But he did it anyway. In the early 1950s Ernst Marischka had met the very young Romy, the daughter of the German actress Magda Schneider. Marischka tried and tested Romy along with her mother already in two films with a royal touch: “Die Deutschmeister” (1955) a film about a royal regiment and a first attempt as a royal princess with “Mädchenjahre einer Königin” (“Victoria in Dover”, 1954) as the very young Queen Victoria. Romy was the perfect fit for the role of Sissi. In all the previous productions showing Elisabeth – even as the young Empress – she was played by a lady, not a young girl. The films of Marischka depicted the perfect image of girls in the mid 1950s. A girl, who knows what she wants, you can fall in love with and will fit into her role as wife and inside the family.  Even the private person Romy Schneider was stylized into that perfect coming-of-age girl so deeply connected with Sissi that she could never get rid of to the link of that role. This weekend Romy Schneider would have celebrated her 80th anniversary. Guess which films are shown on tv on this occasion.

“Sissi”, now with an “I” at the end premiered again shortly before Christmas 1955. And it was a big success again, not only in Austria and Germany but also around the world. Until 1957, Marischka produced two sequels. In many countries all three parts are still broadcast every year around Christmas.

What was the secret of their success? These films fit into several genres.

Marischka continued to use the style of operettas. Though nobody has an aria, the music is very important. It transports a lot of the emotions in these films. The love story between the protagonists in an operetta can only be solved if they are socially equally. Franz Joseph can be true with his feelings only as soon as he recognizes Sissi as his cousin and a princess in Bavaria. He might have fallen in love with Lisl of Possenhofen but had to relinquish that idea in the interest of the state. And the dramaturgy of an operetta demands a funny person. Here it is Oberst Böckl, a clumsy police officer who tries so hard to get everything right that he has to fail. But also he gets his reward, he becomes the personal guard to Sissi.

“Sissi” is also a “Heimatfilm”. These films deal with the tension between the city connected with business, hustle and illnesses and the countryside, where you can relax and recover.  Here it is Court life versus a liberal lifestyle. Franz Joseph represents the Court with all the ceremonies, restrictions and business. Sissi with her rural background helps to heal the monarchy. In this still she rescues the situation. She asks Count Andrassy, a Hungarian returning from exile, for a dance against court ceremonies after Sophie, the Emporer’s mother has offended him.

Sissi and Franz Joseph can only enjoy their relationsship when they are away from Court. Marischka shows a lot of the most beautiful areas of Austria not affected by war in these films making them a “Tourist film” as well.

And they are “Habsburg films” of course, a special Austrian genre already created in the 1930s. They are set in a timeless monarchy. The historical persons are concerned by personal problems and not by politics.

“Sissi” brought the film-goers back to a time-gone-by, a world of glamour and splendour. A world where politics do not matter. There are conflicts of course, but they seem to be private ones. They are solved by the charms of Sissi. Mostly, it is a struggle between her role as an Empress and as a private person. In this scene, she already has a personal bond to Andrassy. She had invited him to this ball. Therefore, she is offended by her mother-in-law, too. As you can see with this still, Sissi is at the centre of action. She is the moving one, physically and emotionally. In all three parts she is roaming around, she goes to Ischl to meet her prince charming, she goes to Hungary to be Queen. She goes to Italy to break the ice with the people there. And she only does so by showing her feelings as a private person and as a mother. Conflicts are emotional ones affecting her. Often it seems, she is only rewarded if she surrenders her personal wishes.

Georg Seeßlen once said: ”You do not watch or read a movie, you believe it. And you know it is a bad one if you don’t believe it.”

Ernst Marischka constructed a world you could believe in, showing a perfect Austria far away from politics and war. In one review he was once called “The great magician and charmer”. You still believe his worlds. Mostly because he used elements the spectators were familiar with. As an Austrian you know more or less the romantic love story of Sissi and Franz Joseph. If not, you can read a simple fairytale story in these films. There are some famous portraits of Empress Elisabeth which you connect immediately with her. The most famous one is the one by Franz Xaver Winterhalter painted in 1865 showing her in a white tulle robe with silver embroideries and her well-known hairstyle: braids worn like a crown with diamond stars in her hair. It is not a typical state portrait. She looks like a fairy and seems to vanish any moment. In every film you get reminded of this portrait, even here in this still. In this trilogy Romy Schneider has several dresses in this style but she always wears them when you see her in the function of the Empress.

You could visit the Imperial Appartements of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth in Hofburg and Schönbrunn Palace from as early as 1919. Marischka did not shoot his films inside them. He created his imperial world in the studios. He only showed the exterior of the buildings to localise the scenes. But nevertheless, he used imperial furniture. His world was even better than the reality. He could rent everything he needed from Bundesmobilienverwaltung, a department of the government housing remaining furniture and objects of the monarchy. The Republic of Austria did not only fund these movies, it also earned money from them.

And Austria and especially Vienna still benefits from these films by Marischka. As Tessa Bridal said: „As components of the cultural landscape, theatres and museums alike – I add films as well – play a role in creating and enacting place-based identity. No wonder then, that so many cities in the world have turned to them in order to sell their brand, both at home and abroad.”

Marischka did not only create a brand with these films. He created a “lieu de mémoire” as Pierre Nora calls it. “Sissi” is part of the national memory and it constructed a new image of the Republic. These films show Austria according to the State Treaty which was signed in Mai 1955. An independend country which tries to mediate between different nations. The Sissi-trilogy still presents a cultural image of Austria.

And there was no need to create a “Sissi”-Land. It is still present. You can feel the imperial atmosphere when you take part in one of the many balls in the Hofburg or you visit the Imperial Appartements in Hofburg and Schönbrunn Palace themselves looking for the real history. As I stated in my doctoral thesis at least the Sisi Museum as part of the exhibitons in Hofburg is influenced by the films. Elisabeth is shown on some walls like you would see her on a big screen. Of course, you find all the portraits and depictions Ernst Marischka uses in his trilogy. And if you cannot find the connection between the history and the films at this place you can visit Hofmobiliendepot – Furniture Collection Vienna. A tour shows scenes of the trilogy on small screens along the display of the furniture used. At least history and film blend into each other again.


Photo credit: „Sissi – Die junge Kaiserin“ (1956), Jupiter Film