A noble back, the noble pale skin, what are the visible welts and bruises? Is Elisabeth of Austria a victim of domestic violence? If you like. Except that she intentionally allows herself to be inflicted with the pain caused by being tied up in the corset every morning. “Firm, firm,” she instructs the lady-in-waiting. And when one is too weak to put on the armor, the next one is commanded over with authority. It can never be tight enough for Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, known as Sisi.
With “Corsage”, the Austrian filmmaker Marie Kreutzer joins the current feminist reading of the life of this 19th-century pop star. Sissi, as the empress was called in Ernst Marischka’s 1950s trilogy, no longer has anything in common with the impetuous but sweet-hearted creature who ultimately upheld marriage, family and roles and who Romy Schneider once embodied (and later in Visconti’s drama “Ludwig II”). again clearly more disillusioned, more distanced).
The Netflix series “The Empress” announced for September also draws on the rebel appeal of the monarch, who was born in 1837. But is Sisi, who was already stylized as an icon of youth in paintings and photographs during her lifetime, actually a good role model or is the costume drama only supposedly attributed with relevance?
In any case, the biopic “Corsage”, which was invited to Cannes in May, consistently refuses to be pompous as an end in itself. Instead of courtly splendor, the cool corridors of the Vienna Hofburg and flaking residences in England and Hungary, which tell of the decline of a pre-modern caste, dominate. Nature too – even the domesticated one in Schönbrunn Park – has a repelling effect. Nowhere edification as on Madeira and Corfu, Elisabeth historical places of longing. Judith Kaufmann avoids tableaus, the camerawoman maintains a chamber play-like concentration. The barely made-up facial features of Vicky Krieps, whose sensitive acting skills help “Corsage” to achieve the psychological depth that Marie Kreutzer’s screenplay of self-empowerment occasionally lacks.
“Corsage” begins shortly before Christmas 1877 in Vienna. Elisabeth’s 40th birthday falls on Christmas Eve. Large station with children’s choir, anthem, honor guard and the notables of the city who greet Franz Joseph and Elisabeth. “You’re already considered a phantom in the city,” hisses a gentleman as he kisses the Empress’s hand. And the other tells her his wife thinks she struggles with her weight.
This is a rather unrealistic scene in its verbal irreverence, which serves to set the misogynistic tone of male society against which the director lets her heroine rebel. With a feigned fainting, which she later teaches her bosom friend King Ludwig von Bayern (Manuel Rubay), who is just as longing for death.
“I asked your opinion on the subject of Hungary,” Franz Joseph (also wonderfully differentiated: Florian Teichmeister) cuts off the words of his wife over supper in the evening, who wants to be informed about the uneasy situation in Sarajevo, “I’m despised until for today”. In his eyes and in the eyes of the people, Elisabeth has exactly two tasks: to ensure the continued existence of the Habsburg dynasty, which she fulfills with four children, and to represent what she finds so unbearable in “Corsage” that sometimes a lady-in-waiting acts as a double in public must serve.
This detail is on record about Elisabeth, as is her lifelong underweight, her passion for travelling, horseback riding, hiking, fencing, gymnastics, for Heinrich Heine and for poetry itself (she also writes poetry herself), which is tantamount to a permanent flight. Elisabeth was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time. She vigorously fueled the body cult, especially around her hair piled up in a crown hairstyle. Hairdressing alone took several hours a day. “Corsage” shows what that means: living on a permanent diet of veal bouillon and wafer-thinly sliced oranges. “The main thing is that we leave a nice picture behind,” Sisi once said resignedly.
Struggling to survive as an individual against expectations and Spanish court ceremonial, she resembles Princess Diana, who flees the royal family as a depressed, bulimic queen victim in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. So does Sisi, who expands her circle of ladies-in-waiting into an adopted family. With herself as a capricious matriarch who demands the same unconditional loyalty from her ladies that she refuses to the emperor and the state.
Without batting an eyelid, she refuses to let her confidant Marie Festetics (Katharina Lorenz) marry a count. Kreutzer does not hide the fact that Sisi’s cage is a golden one. It even reflects him more than clearly when the empress visits chained “hysterics” in the institution. Or when the ruler “buys” an 18-year-old commoner as a mistress for her husband during the mid-life crisis.
What makes “Corsage” interesting is the modern approach to the figure. Vicky Krieps talks like a modern woman, she plays Sisi naturalistically. Camille’s pop songs also work against any leisurely costume film. Elisabeth of Austria was a sovereign character. She controlled her image in public, stopped being photographed from her early 30s and took liberties.
The eternal femininity trap of wanting to use the power of beauty in order to be accepted still works today as it did in the 19th century. Kreutzer gives her fictionalized Sisi the opportunity to overcome this dilemma in a passive-aggressive process of self-annihilation. However, this imperial emergency exit is of little use for the ideal of women’s politics.
But because a Sisi reinterpreted as early emancipation remains iconic and the story of love and suffering, coercion and rebellion at court is so attractive and universal, the Sisi Festival continues happily. Not only on Netflix, but with the movie: “Sisi and I” by Frauke Finsterwalder, with Susanne Wolff as the empress. And also in literary terms: “Sisi” will be published in September, the new novel by Karen Duve, who discovered the empress, who was a brilliant huntsman and dressage rider, because she is a rider herself. And feminist anyway.