The beautiful tale of Empress Elisabeth of Austria's early life is told in the six-part Netflix series The Empress. Prior to its premiere, the 1950s Sissi trilogy, which starred the endearing Romy Schneider as the principal actress, was the most well-known film dramatisation of Elizabeth's life. The epic love tale between Elizabeth and Franz Joseph is given a new perspective in The Empress, which was published seven decades ago. The love narrative is as strong and dramatic from the start.
The youthful Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I and the young Bavarian Duchess Elisabeth (Devrim Lingnau) had a fatal meeting in The Empress' first (and currently only) season (Philip Froissant). The Empress blends historical backdrop with fiction, as is typical of period dramas. Instead of attempting to provide complete historical accuracy, it focuses on telling a gripping love tale that captures the interest of the viewer. To become the fabled Empress of Austria, revered around the world even 150 years later, who was the actual Elisabeth, and what obstacles did she face at the Viennese Court?
Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, also known as Sissi (alternate spelling Sisi), was the second daughter and third child of Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria and his wife Ludovika. She was a charming and independent young woman who resided alone with her family in Possenhofen Castle and dreamed of happiness and true love. Archduchess Sophie (Melika Foroutan), the authoritarian mother of Franz Joseph, was contemplating a powerful alliance for her son at the Viennese Court. The recent assassination attempt on the 22-year-old monarch (on February 18, 1853) that would have left Australia without a direct male heir contributed to the haste with which he sought a marriage.
Notably, Sophie had not originally intended to marry into the regal Bavarian House of Wittelsbach. The young emperor Franz Joseph was very particular; he didn't like either Princess Sidonie of Saxony or Princess Anna of Prussia. Due to this, his mother contacted her sister, Duchess Ludovika of Bavaria, and they worked together to set up an engagement between Franz Joseph and Helena, the elder daughter of Ludovika (Elisa Schlott). Franz Joseph hurried to the little Austrian town of Bad Ischl on August 15, 1853, where Duchess Ludovika was scheduled to arrive with her daughter to celebrate Franz Joseph's birthday, burning with anticipation to see the promised beautiful bride. The young Emperor had no idea that his aunt would also bring her 15-year-old youngest daughter, Elizabeth, along on the trip. Elizabeth would quickly win Franz Joseph's heart.
The reply is, "Up to a point." Franz Joseph actually hadn't seen his relatives before the festivities in Bad Ischl. Technically, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph first crossed paths in June 1848 when Duchess Ludovika, a mother of young children, visited Archduchess Sophie at Innsbruck. Elizabeth was too young at the time to catch the future Emperor's attention since he was too preoccupied dealing with revolutionary events that imperilled the monarchy. One of the many stories surrounding Elizabeth and her life is the idealised portrayal of their encounter in The Empress, which takes place in the woods. Even Franz Joseph's audacious "two cotillions in a row" approach, inviting Elizabeth to dance one after another (which was a sure sign of an upcoming engagement), was discussed with his mother before the ball by Franz. The actual proposal for marriage was delivered in a far more formal manner—through Archduchess Sophie, who approached her sister and facilitated the families' agreement to wed Elizabeth and Franz Joseph.
Elizabeth soon discovered that the fairy tale was only a fantasy after the wedding. The young empress had mousetrap syndrome very away after she was crowned since her niece's mother-in-law began forcibly moulding her into a "genuine" empress while arbitrarily controlling court regulations and stringent etiquette stifled her free-spirited nature. The disputes between Elizabeth and the reportedly ambitious Maximilian (Johannes Nussbaum) and Archduchess Sophie, however, were not as one-sided as frequently depicted in the empress' biographies.
The Tragic Beginning of "The Empress"
The dramatic conclusion of The Empress' first season leaves viewers hanging when Elisabeth discovers she is pregnant while preparing to return to Bavaria following a difficult confrontation with her husband and mother-in-law. The tale of Elizabeth's life will definitely provide enough of rich source material for many seasons to come, should the audience be fortunate enough to witness further development of the series.
Elizabeth's connection with her mother-in-law Sophie sank in a downward spiral as she became persuaded that the youthful, impulsive Empress could not provide the royal children a proper upbringing. Many biographies and works of fiction that describe Elizabeth's life frequently paint Sophie as a ruthless, power-hungry tyrant who brutally subjected her daughter-in-law to her own will. The truth is more complicated. Sophie was a driven individual who prioritised her responsibilities as a monarch. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was progressively ignoring her official royal responsibilities and living a solitary, frivolous existence.
The Empress travelled extensively starting in the 1860s, seeing neither her husband nor her children very often. Even though Franz Joseph made no attempt to curtail his wife's wanderings, this behaviour was strongly disapproved of by the Austrian nobility. Her oldest daughter, Sophie, who was two years old, passed away from an infection in 1857 while on one of the journeys to Hungary. Sissy was so devastated by the loss of her first child that she totally turned over responsibility for Gisela and Rudolf's upbringing to her mother-in-law. Contrary to popular opinion, Crown Prince Rudolf did not have a close relationship with his mother. But when the 30-year-old prince committed suicide in 1889, Elizabeth was deeply moved and for the rest of her life only wore mourning hues.
Franz Joseph's younger brother, the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Habsburg, is another significant protagonist in The Empress and was in fact a prominent role in the Austrian court. Despite the lack of concrete evidence that Maximilian intended to topple Franz Joseph, the fact that Maximilian was influenced by the most liberal and progressive ideologies posed a lingering threat to the elder brother. The Emperor preferred to send Maximilian away, designating him as a viceroy of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, since the conflict between the two brothers was gradually growing (modern Italy). Maximilian was made the Emperor of Mexico at the beginning of the 1860s as a result of his support for French interference in the nation. Maximilian soon encountered resistance from the Mexican Republicans, led by Benito Juárez. Despite the protests of all European kings, US President Andrew Johnson, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Victor Hugo, the Emperor was imprisoned and later executed as the French Expeditionary Force withdrew from Mexico.
Elizabeth tragically passed away in 1898 in Geneva after being murdered by the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni. She never paid any attention to her own safety and insisted on travelling alone rather than having a guard with her, which ultimately caused her premature death. Emperor Franz Joseph allegedly kept silent for several months following the passing of his cherished wife. As a tangible representation of the enduring love that these two were bonded by since their tragic encounter in Bad Ischl, a portrait of Elizabeth hung in his study till the end of his life. Their love story changed the course of European history, setting off a series of circumstances that eventually ushered in the First World War.
In many ways, Empress Elizabeth was a contentious figure. But she has always been a remarkable woman who, even 150 years later, still captures the curiosity, intrigue, and fascination of generations.