Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, was known for her beauty, free spirited attitude, modernity, intellect, taste in fashion, diet, exercise, horse riding and her long dark tresses.

Empress Elisabeth

The elegant nature loving beauty, daughter of Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika, of Bavaria, became Empress of Austria when she married her maternal first cousin, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria, and later was crowned the Queen of Hungary (She subsequently held the titles of Queen of Bohemia and Croatia as well). Empress Elisabeth was assassinated, 115 years ago today, on 10th September 1898, by an anarchist named Luigi Lucheni, who had just wanted to kill somebody of royal blood, didn’t matter who.
Elisabeth, was affectionately called “Sissi”, by her loved ones and close friends, since she was a child. She was an Austrian icon during the Victorian era, and had a great role influencing Austro-Hungarian politics.

Romy Schneider as Sissi

Sissi et moi
Back in the 80’s & 90’s, our mother, who loved telling us intriguing stories of books and movies she had read and watched when she was younger, had mentioned many a times about this beautiful love story she had watched, back in the late 60’s, called Forever My Love (1962), when it was shown on the big screen in Colombo, which she had never managed to locate afterwards.
Thanks to the invent of the internet, and more specifically the Internet Movie Data Base site (IMDB), I realised Forever My Love was actually an edited condensation of the Austrian Sissi trilogy (dubbed into English); Sissi (1955), Sissi – Die Junge Kaiserin (1956) and Sissi – Schickalsjahre einer Kaiserin (1957); a trio of films based on the early life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
But it wasn’t until 2009, that I located the three films. Not that I actually went hunting for them, but I never accidentally came across them either.
It was by fluke, in late August 2009, whilst residing in Paris, I just happen to walk into the ‘Virgin Stores’, in the Champs Élysées (a favourite haunt of mine), to see what newer books and films they had in store. To my surprise, I came across the trio of Sissi DVD’s, dubbed into French, but alas there were no subtitles included. I mentioned this to my mum, when I called her up. She was delighted, and told me to buy them, it didn’t matter that it didn’t contain English subtitles, she knew the movie by heart. After all, she had waited four decades to re-watch it. The Sissi movies to my mum, were like what Woodstock was to the people who had witnessed it. In fact in 2009, Paris shops were celebrating 40 years of Woodstock and Summer of 69’.

Romy Schneider as Sissi

Romy Schneider as Sissi

Sissi Films
Before I bought these films, I had already watched Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (1972), in Paris itself, a bio-pic on Ludwig-II of Bavaria, cousin of Empress Elisabeth. For Ludwig, Romy Schneider (who had previously played the role of Sissi, in 50’s Sissi trilogy) reprised her role of, a more mature, Empress Elisabeth. Schneider being more mature in age by then, she was perfect for role.
Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed the Sissi DVD’s, when we watched the films four years ago, sans subtitles.

The Real-life Sissi: From Duchess of Bavaria to Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary
On Christmas eve, the 24th of December, in 1837, Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, gave birth to their fourth child, Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie (a.k.a. Sissi). Little did they know that someday she’d be amongst the most famous, pre-feminist era, feminist, a sovereign, a political mediator and a fashion icon. Maximilian was known for his love for circuses, and often travelled in the Bavarian countryside to escape his duties. The family lived in Possenhofen Castle, thus Sissi and her siblings grew up in a very unrestrained and unstructured environment, far from court protocols.
In 1853, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, the domineering mother of 23-year-old Emperor Franz (Francis) Joseph of Austria, wanted her son to marry her sister, Ludovika’s, eldest daughter, Helen. The fun loving 15 year old Sissi, who had no desire what so ever to be a queen, accompanied her mother and elder, 18 year old, sister Helen, on a trip to the resort of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria.
Helene was a pious, very quiet, young woman, and when she met the Emperor, the two had a tensed unease creep between them. Meanwhile the Emperor was infatuated with the innocent bewitching beauty, Sissi, and her perky carefree attitude. For once the Emperor defied his mother saying if he could not have Elisabeth, he would never marry, period. Five days later they were engaged and it was officially announced that Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria was to marry Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria. The couple were married eight months later in Vienna at the Augustinerkirche on 24 April 1854, changing Sissi’s title from Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria to Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
Post marriage, though happy with her husband, her life was made miserable by her mother-in-law, Princess Sophie. On 5th March, 1855, almost eleven months after her marriage, Elisabeth gave birth to her first child, a daughter. Sophie at once took away the new born baby from the mother, and named the child after herself, (Archduchess Sophie of Austria), without the mother’s (Sissi’s) knowledge. Not only did Sophie take charge of the new born, she didn’t let Elisabeth even breast feed the baby, nor allow her to see her own child. On 12th July 1856, when she gave birth to a second daughter (Archduchess Gisela of Austria), the same fate arose for the second child.
The fact that Sissi hadn’t given birth to a male heir made her more of an outcast in the royal palace. One day Sissi found a pamphlet on her desk, stating that,‘‘…The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne….she should by no means meddle with the government of an Empire, the care of which is not a task for women ….. If the Queen bears no sons, she is merely a foreigner in the State, and a very dangerous foreigner,….she can never hope to be looked on kindly here…..’’. The jealous mother-in-law, Sophie, is generally considered to be the schemer behind this malicious pamphlet to Sissi. When Sissi travelled to Italy with her husband, her influence on her husband, regarding his Italian and Hungarian subjects; where she persuaded him to show mercy toward political prisoners; was the accusation of ‘political meddling’ referred to in the pamphlet.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria
In 1857, when Elisabeth visited Hungary for the first time, with her husband and two daughters, she fell madly in love with the place. So much so, that she began to learn Hungarian. The Hungarian people reciprocated with their adoration of her. But this same trip proved fatal for her children. The two little girls became ill with diarrhoea; while the younger, Gisela, quickly recovered, two-year-old Sophie, died (today assumed that she might have died of typhoid fever). The death of her eldest child threw Sissi over the edge of melancholy and onto the brink of a deep depression, and became bulimic, which would affect her the rest of her life. By December 1857, Sissi was pregnant with her third child. Sissi, who was very close to her parents, was nursed back to health by her mother. On 21 August 1858, Elisabeth finally gave birth to a male heir, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. Once again Sissi was blocked from the upbringing of her new son. By now, more mature (aged 20), she openly rebelled, but to no avail.
Having no say in the upbringing of her children, Sissi decided that she would not have any more children and withdrew from her husband sexually, saying what’s the use of having children only to be taken away from her. Which upset Princess Sophie, as she had expected to have a new grandchild on a regular basis. Sissi took an interest in politics, helping paving the way for a peace negotiations between Austria and Hungary. And she started a beauty and exercise regime. She daily took care of her long dark blonde to chestnut hair, which took almost two hours, though she used very little cosmetics and she believed in her natural beauty; instead relying on natural products like sweet almond oil and rosewater.
Throughout the 1860’s Sissi was ill, with coughing fits, violent migraines, fever, anaemia, and had contracted a lung disease. Around this time there were rumours that Franz Joseph was having a liaison with an actress named Frau Rollthe. At this time Sissi left her husband for short period, as a fresh rest cure was advised, and she went off to Corfu Island. After a two year long recovery she came back just before her husbands birthday. But soon she was ill again. But now Sissi became more assertive than ever before in her defiance against her mother-in-law, and openly opposed her and the Emperor, on the subject of military education of Rudolf.
Meanwhile she warmed back to the Emperor, and she would soon be pregnant for the fourth time. She was in the frontline to political negotiations which ensured Hungary to gain an equal footing with Austria. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 created the double monarchy of Austria and Hungary, and Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth were officially crowned King and Queen of Hungary with the coronation held on the 8th June 1867.

Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary
Sissi gave birth to her youngest child, a daughter, Marie Valerie, on 22nd April 1868 in Budapest, ten months after their coronation. Sissi finally had her way as Sophie’s influence over her grandchildren and the court faded, and she died in 1872. Sissi poured her repressed maternal feelings, love and affection; which she wasn’t allowed to give her earlier children; to her youngest child to the point of suffocation, that Marie Valerie grew to resent her mother.
Meanwhile, Austrian subjects were resentful of their royals having two titles, and rumours of Sissi having many a lovers spread, including that of an affair with George Middleton, an Anglo-Scot, although there is no verifiable evidence of her having an affair with him or any one else for that matter. Meanwhile, to a certain degree, Sissi tolerated her husband Franz Joseph’s affair with yet another actress, Katharina Schratt.
On 30th January, 1889, thirty-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf (Sissi’s son), along with his young lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera, were found dead together at the Mayerling, Rudolf’s hunting lodge in Lower Austria. An investigation suggested it seemed like an apparent murder-suicide by Rudolf. This incident came to be known as The Mayerling Incident. Elisabeth’s life was shattered by the death of her only son.
Sissi never recovered from this tragedy and sank into a even deeper depression and melancholy. Within the span of a year, her mother, her father, her sister, and now her son, had died. From then onwards she dressed only in black for the rest of her life. Even this became her new fashionable trade mark, with her long black gowns that could be buttoned up at the bottom, a white parasol made of leather, and a concealing fan to hide her face from curious onlookers. From her 30’s she stopped sitting for portraits and wished not to be photographed. Only few photographs of her, taken later in life, by press photographers who were lucky enough to capture her without her knowledge, remain. (today they’d be called paparazzi pictures). These snapshots show a woman who was graceful, but almost too slim, and unhappy. Later in life she became bitter, avoided royal duties, and started to travel extensively. But towards the end of her life she became close friends with her husband and shared a platonic relationship with him, and continued seeing the world, and travelling to places like Morocco, Algeria, Malta, Turkey, and Egypt; countries where European royals usually didn’t travel to. Her favourite destinations includes the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), Lake Geneva in Switzerland and Bad Ischl in Austria.

Last photo of Empress Elisabeth, the day before her death, at Territet, Switzerland

Last photo of Empress Elisabeth, the day before her death, at Territet, Switzerland

The Assassination of Sissi
In 1898, Sissi travelled incognito to Geneva, Switzerland. On 10th September 1898, the sixty-year-old Elisabeth, and Countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály, her lady in waiting, left the hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva on foot to catch the steamship Genève for Montreux. They were walking along the promenade when the 25-year-old Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni, stabbed Elisabeth. Unaware of how grave the situation, she still managed to walk and board the ship. Bleeding to death from a puncture wound, not noticeable due to the corset, Sissi lost consciousness and collapsed, when she regained consciousness, and was asked if she felt any pain Sissi died uttering her last words, ‘‘No, what has happened?’’

Nuwan Sen’s Historical Sense
Nuwan Sen’s Film Sense

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