Sissi (1955) and the Life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Emperor and Empress of Austria as portrayed in Sissi.
Romy Schneider as Empress Elisabeth.

An Austrian classic is the 1955 film directed by Ernst Marischka about Empress Elisabeth’s life Sissi. The film is the first installment of a triology of films featuring Romy Schneider and Karlheinz Böhm, and is a cultural phenomenon in Austria, usually featured on the ORF television network during the Christmas season each year. Growing up, watching this film triology was a joy for me; learning about the royals in Austria, as well as the emblematic and historical culture of Austria. The real Empress Elisabeth’s life was quite a bit less romanticized than the wonderful films.

The real Empress Elisabeth at her coronation.

The real Empress Elisabeth was Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary and reigned from 1854 – 1898. Her life was quite fascinating. The Empress unfortunately suffered from anorexia; she exercised vigorously and weighed at one point 95lbs, and this was after having four children. She was an avid equestrian and athlete and was considered to be an emotionally complex individual.

Her only son’s death in a murder suicide with his lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at his hunting lodge in Mayerling was a tragedy that Sissi endured and never recovered from. Prince Rudolf was the heir to the throne, so his death had momentous consequences; this event was a precursor catalyst to WWI as the Prince’s death destabilized the monarchy and could be interpreted as prompting Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in June 1914. Empress Elisabeth herself was assassinated in 1898, tragically stabbed by a 25 year old Italian anarchist in Geneva at age 61 years old.

The film series created by Marsichka captured the lives of these royals in such beautiful ways. The aesthetic appeal of these films is undeniable and also has stayed timelessly stylish through the decades. I think Sissi is easily one of my favorite films, it’s charming and captivating from start to finish. Popular culture is no stranger to portraying Sissi: there is a limited edition Empress Elisabeth Barbie that is still in circulation and the late Karl Lagerfeld utilized the image of Sissi for a CHANEL advertisement in 2014. Whether or not it’s an entirely accurate depiction, Empress Elisabeth lives on.

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