Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)

  |  Drama, History, Romance

Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957) Poster

The final film in a highly romanticized trilogy about Elisabeth "Sissi" of Austria finds the young empress traveling throughout Europe.



  • Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)
  • Romy Schneider and Magda Schneider in Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)
  • Romy Schneider in Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)
  • Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)
  • Romy Schneider in Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)
  • Romy Schneider in Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)

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Ernst Marischka


Ernst Marischka

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15 January 2017 | kekseksa
More goulash than pigs' trotters - a bit more kosher
In reviews of the two earlier Sissi films I have already pointed out that the historical interest of the films is to be found in their relation to fifties Germany (pan-Germany) rather than to the rather slender connection with the real history of pre-First World War Austro-Hungary. I shall not repeat those arguments here.

There is a curious "truth" game played in one of the films of Fassbinder where the characters determine who is intended by asking such questions as "What would s/he be if he were a tree" etc The last question (the killer) is "What would s/he have been during the Third Reich?" Fassbinder was one of the few West German film-makers to resolutely explore the old wound. The Austrian Marischka is at the furthest extreme, creating this really quite extraordinary fairy-tale epic which is, by careful design, light years away from the terrible "you know what", the unmentionable (like tuberculosis in this film), that most Germans now preferred to cast into oblivion.

There is not very strong evidence for Sissi suffering from tuberculosis, although it was apparently at one time suspected, but the "white plague" was quite an important issue in the late forties and fifties (on the increase in the aftermath of the war) although it was in fact to be the decade when the disease was at least temporarily mastered. Germany, like Sissi, might hope for a complete cure.

1957 was the comeback year for Veit Harlan (best known for the anti-semitic wartime classic Jud Süss. After somehow battling through to an acquittal in the courts, Harlan produced the film Anders als du und ich, a rather daring film about homosexuality, picking up a theme common in pre-Hitler Weimar. Harlan's film was also known as "the third sex", a term coined in the twenties by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (openly gay and Jewish), and similarly used as an alternative title both for Oswald's Anders als die Andern 1919 (in which Hirschfield himself appears) and for Dreyer's Mikaël (1924). Sadly for Harlan, his reputation was against him and the film met with demonstrations accusing him inter alia, and rather justly, of being anti-homosexual, although it is true that the film was more timid and conservative on the subject than its Weimar predecessors.

Harlan could not call for this film on his former wartime collaborator, art director Bruno Mondi, for the very good reason that Mondi had his hands full as art director for the Sissi trilogy.

The pan-Germanic theme continues in the third part of Sissi, to extend beyond Germany (represented by Sissi's native Bavaria), Austria and Hungary to include Italy - a perfect representation of Mitteleuropa, the maintenance of whose cultural imperium has throughout the trilogy been seen as Sissi's peculiar "destiny" = "order, peace, happiness, contentment" (order, typically still comes first)

It is a sad irony of history that, had Hitler had a more generous conception of the Volkdeutsche, he might have been the champion of European Jewry (Ashkenazis throughout Europe were German speaking and very largely of German culture). In this film history is put right to a certain extent - but rather coyly. Not only do we see the Hungarian gypsies again, as in the second film but Sissi's brother marries actress...and a bourgeoise(who just happens to have the Yiddish surname Mendel).

Quite where this fairy-tale land benevolently dominated by the Volkdeutsche would have extended in the projected fourth part of Sissi, we cannot know. Von der Etsch bis an den Belt no doubt. What words, one wonders, did the German audience mutter to themselves as the Haydn music played (as it had in each part of the trilogy) at the climax of the film?

The two charming puppets (Romy and Karlheinz) rebelled. For the special relevance of these two performers (both "innocent" children of parents prominently and ostentatiously, if relatively frivolously, known for their support of Hitler - Magda Schneider, who of course appears as the mother in the films and the conductor Karl Böhm).

Schneider's unwillingness (despite her mother) to continue the masquerade is well known but I do not doubt that the feeling was shared by Karlheinz. Both marked their rebellion by a career-change, although in Romy's case this involved battling with her mother rather as Sissi battles with the mother-in-law in the trilogy. After agreeing to play the same part as her mother had played in the film Christine (a remake of Ophüls 1933 Liebelei), she broke the umbilical cord by running off with her co-star Alain Delon.

As for Karlheinz he would appear, at great cost to his career, in the remarkable but disturbing film Peeping Tom (1960) made by the British director Michael Powell. The appearance of a German actor in the principal role is totally anomalous but may well be explained by the fact that the films is crucially concerned with the effect of a child growing up with a famous but grimly obsessive father (played by Powell himself in the film). If he never became a major star, the younger Böhm would nevertheless on the whole make a success of what might be described as his personal quest for rehabilitation, becoming a left-wing activist in the sixties and later a noted philanthropist and appearing in the seventies in the films of Fassbinder (as a homosexual in one and a communist in the other).

For Romy Schneider, the road was far more difficult and, despite a period of great fame, would end with her suicide in 1982 at the age of forty-three. She had given both her children markedly Jewish names (David and Sarah) and was buried with a star of David around her neck.

Escapism no doubt has its place but there is still no better antidote to a troubled past than facing it honestly.

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