Sissi (Romy Schneider) is a wild girl who loves nothing more than to go hunting with her father, Duke Max (Gustav Knuth). That’s why her mother, Duchess Ludovika (Magda Schneider) usually tries to keep her away from society. But when Ludovika and her daughter Helene (Uta Franz) get invited to Bad Ischl to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Franz Josef (Karlheinz Böhm), they decide to take Sissi along as cover – so that nobody suspects that Ludovika and Franz Josef’s mother Archduchess Sophie (Vilma Degischer) have already long planned to announce the Emperor’s engagement to Helene there. But things don’t go quite as planned.
Despite being Austrian myself and having what feels like half of the Austrian economy depend on the Sissi cult, I have never seen the movies. After having seen the first one, I don’t know how much of a coherent comment I can make about it, because mostly I just want to say, “holy shit.”
Sissi is a well-made film with lavish costumes and beautiful cinematography that looks like an ad straight from the Austria Tourism Board (the Sissi movies and Sound of Music are still the most successful marketing for Austria itself ever). The acting is a little shaky here and there, but I believe that’s mostly due to directing choices and script rather than the cast itself. And some people – above all Josef Meinrad as the laughable police constable Böckl – shine even through that.
But of course those qualities aren’t what glued me to the screen with a growing sense of disbelief as every minute passed. It’s the sheer kitsch that oozes from every frame of this film, that ignores Austria’s recent history with two World Wars and returns unapologetically to the romanticized good old times where the Kaiser ruled benevolently, women were pretty, not too wild and not too meek, and Austria blessed with beautiful scenery, the Danube and eternal sunshine.
There is practically no historical truth to what happens in the film, although the way it is told here has informed most of the knowledge on Sissi and Franz Josef even today. As much as I know that and as much as that sugary version of the Monarchy and Austria is problematic, it does make for a good story and one that nests in your brain as you watch the film and then doesn’t leave anymore. It is almost as if they hypnotize you with the film.
That is also the reason why I decided I needed a break before seeing the other two Sissi movies. I am afraid that watching them all together will seriously screw with you – already after one film I felt a bit like I was on drugs. But maybe even because of that, the film is definitely worth seeing at least once.