5 Portrayals of Empress Elisabeth of Austria | History Hit

5 Portrayals of Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Amy Irvine

31 Oct 2022
Romy Schneider as Elisabeth of Austria in 'Sissi' (1955, right); Coronation photograph by Emil Rabending, 1867 (left)
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Elisabeth von Wittelsbach (nicknamed ‘Sissi’ / ‘Sisi’) was Empress of Austria from her marriage in April 1854 until her assassination in 1898. 

Tall, slim and considered one of the most beautiful women of her age, Elisabeth’s daring personal style was often emulated both within and outside the Austrian empire. She was a progressive woman, and her dislike of convention was admired by the public. Elisabeth’s charm and charisma prompted her to be known as the People’s Empress, becoming the subject of unprecedented adoration whilst simultaneously wishing to avoid the limelight. Nevertheless, she was integral in bringing about the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867 due to her affinity with the nation – one of the few times she actively involved herself in politics.

Yet behind her seemingly enviable life lay tragedy. Elisabeth had enjoyed an informal upbringing before unexpectedly marrying Franz Joseph, the young new Emperor of Austria. Unprepared for court life, she found it stifling, and was at odds with her mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, who took over the rearing of her daughters, one of whom died in infancy. 

Elisabeth of Austria in 1865

Image Credit: Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The birth of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolph, had improved Elisabeth’s standing at court, but she still found court life tough, and suffered from depression and an eating disorder. The suspected murder-suicide of her son and his mistress in 1889 exacerbated this, prompting Elisabeth to withdraw from court duties, travelling widely. It was while in Geneva in 1898, that she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist, ending her already tragic life. 

Since her death, Elisabeth (‘Sissi’) has become a cultural icon, especially in Europe. Romanticised depictions of the moody, intellectual and beauty-obsessed empress have featured in numerous books, exhibitions, plays, an opera, ballets, TV series and films. Inevitable comparisons to the late Princess Diana have further fuelled interest in the Empress and her popular appeal as the first royal celebrity.

Here are 5 of the portrayals of Elisabeth, ‘Sissi’ in both film and television.

Elisabeth of Austria (1931)

In this German historical drama film, the depiction of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (played by Lil Dagover) is as a free spirit, expected to conform herself in a regal manner and wed to Franz Joseph. 

In the film, Elisabeth cannot stand her royal life and all its protocol, and decides to run away from the royal court to live a carefree existence among the people.

From Cleopatra to Catherine de Medici, women in power receive very different criticisms to men.
Listen Now

Sissi Trilogy (1955) 

The Empress Elisabeth was most famously embodied in a hugely popular (and syrupy) television trilogy of the 1950s by the German-Austrian actress Romy Schneider – a role that made her a star. 

Directed by Ernst Marischka, the trilogy includes: Sissi (1955); Sissi – The Young Empress (1956); Sissi – Fateful Years of an Empress (1957). The three films were edited down into one feature English-dubbed film called Forever My Love, released in North America in 1962.

The first of the trilogy, Sissi, is the first time the “young” empress is seen on screen, and mostly centres around Elisabeth’s beauty, offering a rose-tinted portrayal of her relationship with her husband.

The films appear on German and Austrian TV screens every Christmas and are part of the ‘Heimatfilm’ genre which emerged in the German-speaking post World War Two world which depict clear-cut morals and a world untouched by conflict. The trilogy was the first to explicitly depict the romantic myth of Sissi, and ends abruptly with her determination to live a private life – any further exploration of the topic would have been at odds with the accepted image of the loving wife, devoted mother, and benevolent empress. 

In 2007, the films were released as The Sissi Collection with English subtitles. 

Movie poster for ‘Sissi’

Image Credit: The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist. It is believed that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images to provide critical commentary on the film, event, etc. qualifies as fair use

Sisi (2021)

The mini-series Sisi (streamed in Germany) conversely highlights Elisabeth’s tempestuous marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph. It also depicts the exploitation Elisabeth faced at the hands of the Habsburgs as a pretty figurehead, who merely saw her as a producer of a suitable heir to the throne rather than valuing her in her own right. 

The series was received favourably, but caused a stir with its candid portrayal of Elisabeth’s sexuality. Dominique Devenport, who starred as Elisabeth said the character works as a relatable figure due to her strong female narrative, wondering how to stay true to herself whilst meeting people’s expectations of her.

The Empress (2022)

In Netflix’s 6-part historical drama miniseries The Empress (September 2022), Elisabeth is played by Turkish German actress Devrim Lingnau, who portrays her as feistier, wilder and edgier than previous depictions.

In this series, the 16 year old Bavarian duchess Elisabeth ‘Sisi’ is portrayed as falling in love with her sister’s intended fiancé Emperor Franz Joseph, with the two later marrying. It goes on to focus on Elisabeth’s move to Vienna and how she found herself having to navigate the complexity of court politics and her husband’s scheming family members. 

As per the real events, Elisabeth’s mother-in-law Sophia antagonises her almost immediately, yet the series also portrays her brother-in-law Maximilian (Franz Joseph’s younger brother), as trying to keep outshining his older brother and prove that he is more worthy to rule.

While the producers of The Empress clearly had to take artistic liberties on some occasions, they also intended to be as historically accurate as possible by not disrupting timelines or shifting events around to create a more dramatic story arc. They describe the series as a ‘truthful interpretation’, and no doubt further seasons of The Empress are to be expected, following the later events in Elisabeth’s life.

The poster for ‘The Empress’

Image Credit: The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the item promoted, Netflix, the publisher of the item promoted or the graphic artist. It is believed that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images to provide critical commentary on the film, event, etc. qualifies as fair use

Corsage (2022)

Corsage premiered at the Cannes film festival in May 2022 and released to the public in December 2022. Translated as ‘corset’ in German, Corsage goes further down the darker aspects of Elisabeth’s character than Netflix’s The Empress, shocking some critics with its departure from the traditional and romantic image of Elisabeth towards a psychological look at Elisabeth’s suffering with court life, her relationship with her body and beauty and her fear of ageing. 

The film offers a portrait of Elisabeth at aged 40, who by then is depicted as a troubled soul, grasping for freedom from the Hapsburg court’s stifling atmosphere. Scenes include Sissi in the bath, smoking, being obsessed with exercise, weighing herself daily and swearing at courtiers.

Actress Vicky Krieps who plays Elisabeth wore a corset like Elisabeth would have done to give authenticity. She described it as feeling like a torture instrument – giving a glimpse into even the minor and overlooked uncomfortableness Elisabeth would have felt, aside from the more prominent and tragic events that shaped this compelling woman’s life. 

Amy Irvine