She has been described as a Habsburg pop star, the first real celebrity, the first example of a female body shamed by the media, and a long-undiscovered 19th-century feminist icon.
Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, is now brought back to life for the modern age with two new theatrical films, two television series, including a Netflix biopic, as well as a novel.
The latest of these, Corsage, which opened in German cinemas on Thursday after opening in Cannes in May, has shocked some critics with its departure from the traditionally romantic image of the empress towards a darker psychological study. Her suffering under the restrictions of court life is incorporated into the title. Scenes described as “painful to watch” show Sisi, played by Vicky Krieps, strapped into her tiny corset and insisting that her maids, whose hands are raw from her exertion, tighten it further. . Opening on his 40th birthday in 1877, as he struggles to keep up with the expectation that he must remain forever young, fed on a diet of orange slices and beef broth, the film ends with a supposedly shocking scene, which critics have said is worthy of Quentin Tarantino.
Meanwhile, the TV series Sisi is a grim portrait of her tempestuous marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph and her brutal exploitation at the hands of the Habsburgs as a beautiful figurehead who simply saw her as the producer of a suitable heir to the throne. Favorably received so far, it has caused a stir with her candid portrayal of her sexuality.
Sisi, as she was more widely known, was most famously embodied in a hugely popular 1950s television trilogy by German-Austrian actress Romy Schneider. Later, Schneider also played a more mature princess in a 1972 Luchino Visconti film about her close friend, the gay and eccentric King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The actress then complained: “Sisi sticks to me like oatmeal.”
A Bavarian princess before she was singled out as a suitable future wife for Franz Joseph and married him at the age of 16, having four children, before being assassinated at the age of 60 by an Italian anarchist, Sisi opposed to the restrictions of Habsburg Court Life. Dominique Devenport, who stars in the series Sisi, which airs on RTL+ in Germany, said the character “works” as a relatable figure due to her strong female narrative. “She asks the questions that people ask today,” she told German media. “How can I be true to myself, what decisions do I have to make, how do I meet everyone’s expectations of me?”
Netflix series The Empress is set to premiere in the fall and is expected to join its rivals in helping fuel new interest in the aristocrat, who has, unsurprisingly, been widely compared to the late Princess Diana. Parallels have been drawn between Corsage, which was made by Austrian filmmaker Marie Kreutzer, and director Pablo Larrain’s 2021 historical fiction drama Spencer about Diana’s tortured life.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung praised Kreutzer for turning the cloying image of Sisi on its head, showing her masturbating in the bathroom, smoking, pointing fingers at courtiers, taking heroin to calm her nerves, and calling her husband an asshole. “Kreuzter has produced shock therapy,” his critic wrote. He praises her for “liberating” Sisi from a “romyschneiderization, which Romy Schneider herself would have been the first to approve of”.
A novel by Karen Duve, due out in September, is expected to develop another side of her character: a resplendent huntress and dressage rider. Duve has described Sisi as an “undiscovered feminist icon”.
The Hofburg and Schönbrunn palaces in Vienna, where Sisi once resided, have long been strong tourist magnets for those looking to follow his trail. His exercise rings and his pommel horse, on which he is said to have exercised heavily every day, are among the main attractions, while his face adorns everything from boxes of chocolates to opera glasses. . Sisi’s story recently proved a box-office success in the German-speaking world as a stage musical, Elisabeth, which reached an audience of 10 million viewers between 1992 and 2019, but never made it to English-speaking stages. It has produced a particularly strong cult following in Japan, where she has performed.
But the Austrian commentator Hans Rauscher has said that the repeated revival of the Sisi story has a more sinister appeal. On the surface, he wrote in Der Standard, it is “the fascination of a beautiful young woman, the empress of a European empire,” but in reality, he said, it is the rather more everyday story of “an overwhelmed teenager who at 16 married her cousin, a pedantic bore, who gave him an STD”. Describing the retakes as “spicier, yet just as indigestible” as Romy Schneider’s, he suggests that the interest in Sisi has much to do with characteristics she displayed that Austrians relate to. – “depressive, valuing obedience over freedom, neurotic” – which, he said, “perhaps explains the Sisi cult.”