Why watching films about an Austrian empress is a German holiday tradition

Christmas season has arrived in Germany, and this means it’s time to watch the Sissi movie trilogy, which tells the story of a young Viennese empress with a radiant smile and gleaming blue eyes. Released in the 1950s, the films by Austrian director Ernst Marischka,starring Romy Schneider as Sissi, have been getting German audiences in the holiday spirit for decades.

At the time of their release in divided post-war Germany, the lighthearted Sissi films were balm for the soul of a fractured nation. Today, they remain feel-good holiday classics.

Completely irrelevant to present-day fans is how much the director distorted historical reality. The real-life love story between Elisabeth and Franz-Joseph, the rulers of the Hapsburg Monarchy, was “not even enough for a short film,” as the Wiesbadener Tagblatt newspaper wrote in 1957, when Austria proudly submitted the third Sissi film to the Cannes Festival. Yet the critics were mistaken.

A box-office hit

One day after the successful film premiere in Vienna, Austria, in 1955, the first film, Sissi, was released in German cinemas. The story of the charming Bavarian teen who becomes Austrian royalty was followed by two successful movies detailing the young empress’s life: Sissi  The Young Empress (Sissi – Die junge Kaiserin) in 1956, and Sissi  Fateful Years of an Empress (Sissi – Schicksalsjahre einer Kaisierin) in 1957. The films, which launched German actress Romy Schneider into stardom, were box office hits. Although exact figures are not available, an estimated 25 million moviegoers are said to have seen them.

The plot details the early years of Empress Elisabeth of the Habsburg Empire and is based on the novel of the same name by author Marie Blank-Eismann, which was published in two parts in 1952 in Germany. The book had previously been brought to life as an illustrated story in the magazine Blütenregen in 1933.

Kitsch and criticism

Critics accuse the films’ director of leaning too heavily on kitsch, but others say such accusations fall flat. While it’s true that the films do not offer an entirely faithful depiction of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the basic story is accurate, including the young Elisabeth’s rapid alienation from the Viennese court, her enthusiasm for Hungary, her escapades abroad and her dislike of royal life. “I don’t want to become empress! I want to live freely without constraint!” says Sissi in the film. Above all, the films brought classic Hollywood elements to European cinema, by telling heart-warming stories with beautiful imagery, thus making their mark on film history.

Eventually, German actress Romy Schneider became unhappy with the role that made her famous and overshadowed her later career. “I loved this role back then,” Schneider said. “I was the princess, not just in front of the camera. I was always a princess. But one day I simply did not want to be a princess anymore,” she said in an interview later in her life. The actor who played her royal husband, Karlheinz Böhm, complained that the production whisked the audience away to a “pink marzipan pig world,” meaning to a kind of cotton-candy fluff. Böhm broke away from his clean-cut image when he played a psychopathic murderer in the 1959 film Peeping Tom.

Still today, the enchantment with Sissi lives on. Netflix now plans to make an adaptation of the life of the Austrian empress starring German actress Devrim Lingnau in the leading role. In the homes of many families in Germany and Austria during Christmas celebrations, the monarch couple can be seen on television, filling the time between eating a roast and drinking afternoon coffee.

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