OK, maybe you already knew you needed her. Maybe you already had her! Maybe it’s just me then! WHATEVER. Now you’re all getting her here, so enjoy! Thanks to Turner Movie Classics, I finally had a good sit-down with alllllll three of the classic Sissi movies, Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956) (aka Sissi – Die junge Kaiserin), and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), (aka Sissi – Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin), plus the movie that wraps up and condenses the three full German-language films into one English-dubbed movie, Forever My Love (1962). It’s a romp through the Austro-Hungarian Empire of old, with enough hoopskirts, big hair, sweeping vistas, and unrelenting romance to fulfill anyone’s young-girlish fantasies. Being young or girlish not required, everyone can play along!
Let me start by admitting I didn’t know a ton about Empress Elisabeth “Sissi” of Austria other than what Wikipedia told me and what I gleaned from a tour of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna about 10 years ago, where her rooms and artifacts are key to the tourist trade. Sissi of legend is the ultimate pretty pretty princess, and this trio of films doesn’t disabuse us of that notion. Heck, these movies helped build up her legendary princess status! They were played on TV around Christmas in German-speaking countries for years (anyone know if they still are?).
The Real Sissi
Historically speaking, Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie was born in 1837, the daughter of a Bavarian duke, raised in the country, far from court life in Vienna. Her mother, however, was sister to Archduchess Sophie, who decided a cousin would be a good match for her son, the ruling Emperor Franz Joseph. In 1853, Sissi accompanied her mother to present her older sister, Helene, as a future bride for the emperor. And that’s when fate stepped in. Various stories have sprung up about how it happened, but essentially Franz Joseph fell madly in love with Sissi, told his mother he had to marry the younger sister, and that was it.
Franz Joseph married Elisabeth in 1854, and in quick succession they had a daughter, Sophie, in 1855 (who died after two years) and another, Gisela, was born in 1856. Sissi became pregnant again, and in 1858 their son Rudolph was born. This took a toll on Sissi’s already delicate health, possibly exacerbated by the stressful situation of adjusting to strict court formalities and dealing with her overbearing mother-in-law.
The person of Sissi has been described as an introvert, a free spirit, independent, controlling, obsessive, romantic, melancholy, having low self-esteem, dreamy, shy, awkward, proud, nervous, and paranoid. Her beauty and fitness routines have become the stuff of legend, noting how she rigorously controlled what she ate and how much she exercised, rode horses, hunted, even took up fencing, and maintained a 19″ waist all her life. Her famously long hair — hanging down to her feet — required its own fanatical routines with daily upkeep by a special hairdresser and needed concoctions of egg and brandy to keep it looking fabulous, yet the weight of all that hair gave her constant headaches. Sissi has been compared to the 20th-century’s Princess Diana for being the people’s princess with a tragic side. How much of this is true and how much is myth is hard to say, but these 1950s movies sure did seal the deal.
But hey, we don’t want to get all bogged down with historical seriousness — we’re here for the pretty pretty princess! And that’s why these movies deliver. They don’t delve into her complicated familial relationships or Sissi’s obsessive daily regimens and what that meant about her or society at the time. These frock flicks don’t even cover the entirety of life’s events and all the changes in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the time. Heck no, it’s a frothy fancy frock flick for fun, yay!
The Sissi Movies
The first movie takes a whole 102 minutes just to introduce 16-year-old Sissi to Emperor Franz Joseph and get them married.
The second film (109 minutes) has a few more plot points, looking at Sissi’s conflicts with her husband and mother-in-law, Franz and Sissi’s first child being born and being taken away by said mother-in-law, plus Sissi’s support for Hungarian Count Gyula Andrássy, ending with Franz and her being crowned King and Queen of Hungary (which happened in 1867).
The final film (clocking in at 107 minutes) picks up in Hungary with Sissi rebuffing Count Andrássy’s protestations of love, and then the flick follows Sissi through a deathly lung illness and recovery in Portugal and Greece (though these locations are not clearly IDed), and she’s finally reunited in Venice with Franz Joseph and her daughter (who should have died, plus there’s no mention of her other daughter or son).
Chronologically, these three movies would cover about 15 years of her life, but judging by the film’s events, I’m guessing about four or five years are supposed to pass. Forever My Love smushes it all down into 147 minutes with terrible English dubbing for American audiences — though admittedly, I didn’t miss a whole lot of what was cut out.
It should be noted that actress Romy Schneider, who starred as Sissi, came to loathe these movies. The director had planned a fourth one, but Schneider refused. She didn’t want to be typecast as the sweet, naive little girl anymore, reportedly saying, “Sissi sticks to me like oatmeal.” Eventually, Schneider left Germany for the French cinema and also Hollywood.
Costumes in the Sissi Movies
What really sells these movies is the fluffy, fancy costumes, which were designed by a woman known as Gerdago, sometimes called the “Austrian Edith Head.” Gerda Iro was a fine artist, and many of her Art Deco statuettes still show up for auction. In the 1920s, she began designing film costumes, and after World War II, she worked on dozens of Austrian movies, specializing in historical costumes.
Sticking with a short time period means the costumes don’t need to change much, it’s basically 1850s-1860s for all three films. Hoopskirts reign supreme, even if they sometimes get a bit of a New Look 1950s style (ironic since that 20th-century fashion is a reinterpretation of the 19th-century original).
Couple things I have to complain about. One is the rampant ridgeline apparent in so many of the gowns. However, it’s more obvious in the extras and secondary characters than Sissi’s gowns because I think less fabric or lighter-weight fabric was used on their costumes. You can see a line where the hoop wire shows through the dress because the dress fabric is thin and there isn’t a petticoat between the hoop and the gown (the GBACG has a great little article about this on Facebook called “The Lamp Shade Effect“). You don’t see this in the period because women just wore petticoats over their crinolines. Also, historical crinolines usually had a lot more consecutive rings (say 15-20) than modern hoops (which tend to have 2-5). Fewer hoop rings are more likely to poke through than the smoother line of multiple rings.
While we’re on the subject of foundation garments, no corsets are in evidence. The dresses are fitted closely in a period-esque style, but the breast shape has a very “cross your heart” bra look. It’s not terrible, but it’s not 1860s corsets either. Tellingly, a scene in the third movie has a doctor examine Sissi with the back of her gown unfastened, and no corset is to be seen. I can see boning in the front of the gown, but that’s all.
My last general nitpick is that the ladies wear a whole lot of wide, low necklines and short sleeves for daytime. Basically, what looks like ballgown bodices for strolling out in the gardens. Pretty, yes! Realistic for the period, no! The trope seems to be that long sleeves are for traveling or old ladies.
Then there’s the hair, oh my, they nailed Sissi’s crowning glory alright! Giant, massive chestnut braids piled high and mighty. This is the one thing that’s best recreated from her portraits and photos.
OK, any critiques aside, this is SO MUCH FUN to watch! You know why? Because it’s pure, unadulterated, old-fashioned pretty pretty princess time! And, in a way, it’s not all about the romance — sure, Sissi is a “romantic” figure, but she’s reluctant about marrying the emperor and she’s not super thrilled about being his wife or with him or even with any other man. She has moments where she’s happy playing hausfrau, but mostly she wants to independent and left alone to do her own thing — riding horses, fishing, climbing mountains, talking to her animals, playing the zither. She’s a pretty princess with crazy long hair, but she’s a tomboy too. She spends more time away from court life, traveling, and trying to be her own person. Which is, of course, the source of conflict in the films, but it makes her a more interesting character.
This image of Sissi may or may not be historically accurate, but she’s entertaining and as played by Romy Schneider, she’s captivating. A little bit “woe is me” spoiled rich girl at times, but also down-with-the-people, ‘I just want to drink beer and talk to my parrots’ wacky Bavarian kid too. She’s complicated, and I like that. Combined with the fabulously OTT 1950s-does-1860s costuming, it’s a great way to pass an afternoon.
Have you watched the Sissi movies? What did you think?