An Empress Ahead of Her Time Is Having a Pop Culture Moment

VIENNA — The 19th-century Empress Elisabeth of Austria is everywhere in Vienna: on chocolate boxes, on bottles of rosé, on posters around the city. The Greek antiques she collected are at Hermesvilla, on the city outskirts; her hearse is at Schönbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Hapsburg royal family; and her cocaine syringe and gym equipment are on display at the Hofburg, which was the monarchy’s central Vienna home.

These traces paint an enticing, but incomplete, picture of an empress who receded from public life not long after entering it, and spent most of her time traveling the world to avoid her own court. She had a tattoo on her shoulder; drank wine with breakfast; and exercised two to three times a day on wall bars and rings in her rooms. These eccentricities, combined with her refusal to have her picture taken after her early 30s, fueled an air of mystery around her.

Now, nearly 125 years after Elisabeth’s assassination, at age 60, two new productions — a new Netflix series called “The Empress” and a film called “Corsage” that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May and will hit American theaters on Dec. 23 — offer their own ideas.

“Growing up in Austria, she was the main tourist magnet, aside from Mozart,” said Marie Kreutzer, who wrote and directed “Corsage.” Nevertheless, she added, Elisabeth, who was married to Emperor Franz Josef I, is largely a mystery. “Her image is one you can reimagine and reinterpret and fill with your own imagination, because we have a lot of stories about her, but you don’t know if they’re true,” Kreutzer said.

The moody, intellectual and beauty-obsessed empress has had many reincarnations.

While alive, Elisabeth, who also went by “Sisi,” traveled constantly, often to Hungary, Greece and England, and was rarely seen by the Viennese public. In private, she wrote poetry, rode horses and hunted, hiked high into the Alps, read Shakespeare, studied classical and modern Greek, took warm baths in olive oil and wore leather masks filled with raw veal as part of her skin care routine.

A photograph of the empress reproduced at Hermesvilla, a Vienna palace.Credit…David Payr for The New York Times
A famous photograph of the empress from 1865. After her early 30s, she refused to have her picture taken.Credit…David Payr for The New York Times
Michaela Lindinger, a curator and author who has studied Elisabeth for more than two decades, with a 1882 portrait of the empress, at Hermesvilla.Credit…David Payr for The New York Times

“She was such a recluse,” said Michaela Lindinger, a curator at the Wien Museum, who has studied Elisabeth for more than two decades and wrote “My Heart Is Made of Stone: The Dark Side of the Empress Elisabeth,” a book about the Empress that inspired “Corsage.” “People didn’t see her, and she didn’t want to be seen,” Lindinger said.

Nevertheless, she was the empress of Austria, and later the queen of Hungary, too, so she was widely discussed. “No matter how much she fled the attention and scrutiny and the court, she was always pursued,” said Allison Pataki, who wrote two historical novels about Elisabeth, “The Accidental Empress” and “Sisi: Empress on Her Own.” “She was thrust into the spotlight as this young girl who was chosen by the emperor, in large part because of her physical beauty.”

After Elisabeth was killed by an anarchist in Switzerland, in 1898, she became an object of fascination throughout the Hapsburg Empire, and her image appeared on commemorative coins and in memorial pictures. In the 1920s, a series of novels about her were published, focusing on her love life.

During the 1950s, the “Sissi” film trilogy, starring Romy Schneider, revived Elisabeth as a happy-go-lucky Disney princess come to life, clad in bouncy pastel dresses and beloved by animals and people alike. The syrupy films, which appear on German and Austrian TV screens every Christmas, are part of the “Heimatfilm” genre, which emerged in the German-speaking world after World War II and feature beautiful scenes of the countryside, clear-cut morals and a world untouched by conflict.

“I grew up watching the Romy Schneider movies in a campy way,” said Katharina Eyssen, the show runner and head author for “The Empress,” who is from Bavaria, in southern Germany. As played by Schneider, Elisabeth is “just a good-hearted girl that has no inner conflicts,” she said.

Eyssen’s take on Elizabeth, played by Devrim Lingnau in “The Empress,” is feistier, wilder and edgier than Schneider’s. The series opens shortly before Elisabeth meets her future husband (and cousin), during his birthday celebrations in Bad Ischl, Austria. As the story goes, Franz Josef was expected to propose to Elisabeth’s older sister, Duchess Helene in Bavaria, but he changed his mind once he saw Elisabeth.

Where Schneider’s eyes sparkle with joy and excitement, Lingnau’s are heavier and signal a darker inner world

Philip Froissant as Emperor Franz Joseph II and Devrim Lingnau as Elisabeth in “The Empress,” a new Netflix series.Credit…Netflix

In the biographies Eyssen read while developing the show, she said, Elisabeth’s character is portrayed as “difficult, fragile, almost bipolar, melancholic.” But Eyssen didn’t fully buy this perspective. “There has to be a creative and passionate force, otherwise she wouldn’t have survived that long,” she said.

Much of what is known about the empress’s personal life comes from her poems, as well as letters and written recollections from her children, her ladies-in-waiting and her Greek tutor. “She’s a myth in so many ways,” Kreutzer said. “It was a different time, there was no media as there is today. There are so few photographs of her.”

After her early 30s, Elisabeth refused to have her picture taken, and the last time she sat for a painting was at age 42. Photos and paintings of her that are dated later are either retouched, or composites. “She wanted to stay in the memory of the people as the eternally young queen,” Lindinger said.

“Corsage” goes further than “The Empress” down the dark pathways of Elisabeth’s character, offering a punk-gothic portrait of the empress at 40, as a deeply troubled soul who grasps for levity and freedom in the stifling atmosphere of the Hapsburg court. She smokes, she’s obsessed with exercise and the sea, and she weighs herself daily (all true, according to historians).

The title of the movie, in German, translates as “corset.” Famously, Elisabeth maintained a 50-centimeter waistline throughout her life.

Kreutzer and Vicky Krieps, who stars as Elisabeth, decided that, for the sake of authenticity, Krieps would wear a corset like the Empress’s during filming.

“It’s a real torture instrument,” Krieps said. “You can’t breathe, you can’t feel. The ties are on your solar plexus, not on your waist.” She said she almost gave up on filming because of how miserable the corset made her.

Kreutzer also noticed a change in Krieps, with whom she had worked on another movie several years earlier, that began during one of the first fittings.

Krieps, center, with veil, in a scene from “Corsage,” which offers a punk-gothic portrait of the empress at age 40.Credit…IFC Films

“She became slightly impatient with the women working on it and the women who were surrounding her and touching her,” she said. “I know now it was the physical tension and pain that made her feel unwell and act differently than I know her to be. It was like her getting into the skin of somebody else.”

Having grown up on the Romy Schneider films, Krieps said she felt as a teenager that there was something darker in the empress that was being shielded from view, and started to relate to the entrapment she imagined Elisabeth had felt during her life.

After Krieps went through puberty, she said, “suddenly I had a sexuality and my body was always related to this sexuality.” Later, as a mother, she said, “my body became something like a prison,” and society expected her to be an entirely different person.

She began to see in Elisabeth’s struggles with her body and the roles assigned to her as “a heightened version of something every woman experiences,” she said.

The final years of Elisabeth’s life have remained largely unexplored in popular culture. (“Corsage” takes artistic liberties with the portrayal of her death.) After Elisabeth’s only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, killed himself in 1889, her longstanding depression became deeper and more permanent. While sailing on her yacht, Miramar, she would sit on the deck even in bad weather, her ever-present black lace parasol her only defense against the rain and breaking waves, according to “Sisi: Myth and Truth” by Katrin Unterreiner. Once, during a heavy storm, she had herself tied to a chair above deck. According to her Greek tutor, Constantin Christomanos, she said: “I am acting like Odysseus because the waves lure me.”

Pataki, the novelist, said that throughout her life, Elisabeth fought against the constricting role of being an empress. From her poems, intellectual pursuits and travels, it appears as though Elisabeth was always looking outward, imagining herself anywhere but where she was. In one poem from 1880, she gave a hint of what she might have been thinking during all the time she spent on the deck of the Miramar: “I am a sea gull from no land/I do not call any one beach my home./I am not tied by any one place,/I fly from wave to wave.”

In some ways, Pataki said, she might have felt more comfortable in today’s society than in 19th-century Vienna. “Her primary role and the expectation put on her was, have sons, produce heirs,” Pataki said. “But Sisi was very ahead of her time in wanting more for herself as a woman, an individual, a wife and a leader.”

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