Harry isn’t the only royal making news.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria is enjoying an unprecedented pop-culture moment more than a century after her death. She’s the subject of the hit Netflix series “The Empress,” which was renewed for a second season last fall, as well as two new films: “Sisi & I,” which will be released later this spring, and IFC Films’ “Corsage,” which is now in theatres and stars Vicky Krieps (“Phantom Thread”) and was nominated for best international feature film at the Oscars.
What was her name? And why is she appearing everywhere? To learn more about the reluctant royal, we speak with Krieps and Hadley Meares, a historical journalist.
Who was Austrian Empress Elisabeth?
Elisabeth, nicknamed Sisi, was only 16 years old when she was forced to marry Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria in 1854. She was well-known for her compassion for the sick and poor, but she also fought for the rights of the people of Hungary, which was part of her husband’s empire.
Sisi, on the other hand, was dealing with mental illness as well as grief following the deaths of her son and sister. After 44 years on the throne, she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1898, at the age of 60.
“Corsage” depicts Sisi’s attempts to defy palace tradition by smoking, swimming, fencing, and horseback riding, all of which were deemed “unladylike.” That rebellious spirit drew Krieps to Sisi as a teenager, when she first read a biography of the monarch.
“I could feel something much darker and more melancholy behind what I was reading even then,” Krieps says. “My parents raised me so freely, and then you go to school and everyone tells you what to do and how to behave. This painful experience of society attempting to mould you into something connected me to her anguish.”
How similar were Sisi and Princess Diana?
Meares sees “enormous parallels between Sisi and Princess Diana” aside from their humanitarian efforts. “They were both these teenage brides, both upset and unsure of their roles on their wedding day. They did not receive the necessary support from their respective royal families, and both suffered from forms of disordered eating.”
Sisi, like Diana, was known for her great beauty and was killed in a car accident in 1997 at the age of 36.
“She was one of the first true modern celebrities,” says Meares. “Her very long hair, her tiny waist… all of her fashions were copied in books and magazines for women, and all of them were breathlessly reported in newspapers.”
Sisi became obsessed with her physical appearance and image as a result of all the attention, knowing she was viewed as a “circus sideshow.”
“Sisi is such a good example of someone who was not only trapped by those beauty conventions, but also internalised them,” Meares says. “She’s a fascinating person when you consider the gender dynamics that we’re still dealing with today, and how much patriarchy, misogyny, and the male gaze have done to women over the centuries.”
Why is she currently having a pop-culture moment?
Along with the most recent three film adaptations, Sisi has been the subject of numerous books, operas, plays, and films. The 1968 drama “Mayerling,” starring Ava Gardner and Omar Sharif, was about Elisabeth and the Austrian monarchy. Cara Delevingne portrayed the ruler in a Chanel short film in 2014.
Most notably, Romy Schneider played a young empress in the “Sissi” film trilogy in the late 1950s, before reprising the role in 1973’s “Ludwig.”
“She portrayed a much more realistic version of Sisi in the latter,” Meares says. “She finally got to play her not just as a charming nymph, but as the woman she truly was: a deeply troubled woman who wrote beautiful poetry, had real ideals, and was forever wandering this Earth looking for something she could never truly find. Sisi had an anchor tattooed on her arm at the age of 51, which was unheard of for any ‘proper’ woman at the time.”
According to Krieps, Sisi was perfectly imperfect, which is why she continues to captivate and inspire.
“As artists, you can sometimes channel something that is in the air at the time,” Krieps says. “I believe that women are now attempting to emancipate themselves by exposing their vulnerability. That’s why people are drawn to Sisi: she was a woman trying to break free on her own terms. And we need strong women who are flawed and human but can still lead the way.”