Summer 2023 • Vol. XLV No. 1 NonfictionJune 14, 2023 |

Séances with Sisi: Romy Schneider, Kristen Stewart, and Other Women Who Gaze into Darkness

In the Viennese neighborhood of Lainz, on the edge of the Vienna Woods, there lies a sprawling park with forests and meadows and little streams. It is imperial terrain, empress-land. In the spring, fawns with their tender white spots linger among the leaves and shiver as they anticipate nightfall. Under vast skies, birds can be heard calling, and though the playgrounds and bucolic paths are popular with locals, a sense of forlornness, of quietly drifting into the distance, is never far off. Referred to as a Tiergarten, a supposed but misleading synonym for zoo, the park evokes a garden of animals, like paradise, except the Lainzer Tiergarten was just as much backdrop to those endless days of childhood boredom that stretched into fields silhouetted by forests as far as the eye could reach. In those days there was nothing to do but play and wander, and this sheer indescribable endlessness, a state no adult can or should ever revisit, radiated into every crevice of the day like a dull ache. The park rambles so far into the hills that one might forget one is situated within a large city at all, and in this park — its singular destination the reward of hot cocoa on a winter’s walk or the promise of raspberry syrup dissolved in cold tap water in the summer — there lies a magnificent hunting lodge that resembles a small palace: the Hermesvilla. 

To a child’s eyes, little about the Hermesvilla resembles the words hunting lodge. Obligatory antlers decorate the facades, but there is not anything humble about the space and the immensity it evoked in us children. Surrounded by gardens, miniatures of those recognizable in postcards from Versailles to St. Petersburg, the villa sits among terraces, fountains, and stables. Atop a pillar, the statue of Hermes himself, shepherd of souls into the afterlife, favorite of resident Empress Elisabeth, gazes out into the dusky park beyond. The micropalace, built after 1880, is a neoclassical pun — neither Renaissance nor Baroque style but something in between. Supposedly, the last Emperor of Austria had built the villa to entice his restless wife, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary and a woman of insatiable wanderlust, to stay in his Viennese vicinity. His efforts were not successful. 

Elisabeth had loved Shakespeare and likened herself to fairy queen Titania. Consequently the royal chambers were decorated with scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by painter Hans Makart — teacher of a certain Klimt — upon walls and ceiling. No blue was ever bluer than those walls and ceilings I saw as a girl. Really it was more of a beryl color, and Makart’s use of gold seemed to anticipate the gold-elevated blue of Yves Klein. Nothing has ever been starrier than the midsummer night skies of those walls, no distant thicket, filled most likely with tiny green-haired fairies, ever more alluring. The wooden floors had a satisfying, hushed creak to them. Frequently it seemed as if you were the only guest around, and for a moment you could pretend it was all yours, that you were the empress.

It was at the Hermesvilla that I first met, aged five, at an exhibition on the villa’s famous imperial resident, an item that may have been the first to truly shock me: a file, long and blunt, reddish, its shape similar to the tools we used in kindergarten to file animals out of wood, which had been used to assassinate Elisabeth one fall day upon the banks of Lake Geneva. (This was years, two decades even, before Sarajevo.) In its little glass case, the file looked innocuous, unimaginable to ram into any person. I wondered about the rusty color: age? blood? It seemed impossible that for one weighty historical instant, this object in front of me had been inside the empress. And truly, I later learned, it had been only for a fraction of an instant that the file had been plunged into the empress’s breast. So robust was she after a lifetime of riding and gymnastic exercise, or perhaps her nervous system and bodily awareness were so stunted from the wearing of corsets, so numb from the cycles of disordered eating and anorexia, that at first the empress had no idea she had been punctured. The laced corset dammed the blood flow. All Elisabeth and her bystanders knew was that she had received a blow from an aggressive passerby, and on her way she continued, taking another one hundred and eighty steps without complaint and boarding a boat upon which, after remarking on a crimson-purple splotch blossoming across the dark frills adorning her chest, Elisabeth collapsed and expired. She was sixty years old. Her great beauty was still renowned. Though death masks evoke her sunken cheeks and only slightly withered features, these lines were quickly swollen — either by artists or by the methods of embalming — to encourage the perception of an unfaded, youthful woman, her beauty and sadness — her so carefully curated myths, this great poetic achievement — augmenting the tragedy of her demise. 

… …

We have yet to divorce ourselves from the fascination held by royalty. Alongside the massively successful Netflix show The Crown (2016–), two newer films continue to stir our fascination with the dark spleen of royal women: there was the critical success Spencer (directed by Pablo Larraín, 2021) starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, and the more recent Austrian production Corsage (directed by Marie Kreutzer, 2022), which opened in the US at the sixtieth New York Film Festival, with Vicky Krieps portraying the Empress Elisabeth. Set a little more than a century apart, both films artistically depict the unraveling of a powerful monarch and icon. But apart from their grim and glamorous subject matter, the portrayals of two of world history’s most famous and perhaps most privileged women diverge. Spencer restricts itself to the events of a single weekend: it is a portrait, a one-woman show, its sense of humor and imagination enabling the melancholy of its effect. Corsage meanwhile is firmly intended as an agonized cry, a departure. Indeed, Corsage’s very existence seems to hinge on its rupture with one specific former depiction of the Empress Elisabeth, that of a 1950s film franchise in which the young empress was portrayed by the teenaged Romy Schneider.

Her name may have been Elisabeth, but of course we called her only Sisi. “Sisi!” in singsong, the first of the twinned syllables pronounced higher and more shrilly than the second, an invocation as much as an expression of yearning. “Sisi . . .” spoken as a sigh. In shimmering glass vitrines, opulent cakes and violet- or rose-colored candies were named after her. “Sisi” whispered from billboards and from the mouths of aunts and those frail gray-haired ladies on the red-and-white trams with wooden floors that rattled from the vineyards and forests into the Ringstrasse. Sisi was as much part of our home as the outline of St. Stephen’s Cathedral on a box of wafers, the encounter of chocolate with apricot jam upon our tongues, and the mingled scents of chestnut trees and horse droppings that underlie the whole city of Vienna. 

Few photographs show her face exposed to the ravages of time. The legend goes that the death of her firstborn prompted barely twenty-year-old Sisi to avoid being photographed. Later photos show her tall, thin outline in a blur, from a distance. With this limited visual information, her features remain young, straight and stern and hauntingly pretty. Paintings capture the marzipan texture of her skin, her excessively long tresses, which evoke the duality of the image she cultivated: her hair at once shows her off and protects her, disguises her; at times it resembles a gown itself; at other times it is knotted in front of her chest like armor. 

The basic biographical facts, myth or not, still stand since I first heard them: somehow (how?) I always knew that Sisi, born in 1837 and raised in an outdoorsy and artistic line of the Bavarian royal family, had been a tomboy and an introvert, that the future emperor and her first cousin Franz Josef wanted to marry her for her beauty, and that when she arrived at court in Vienna as a teenager, she became isolated and depressed. The glamour Sisi exuded was matched by the challenges and constraints that meet a fictional heroine: she was at once struck by hardship — “the palace was her prison” — and strained against prescription, such as the education of her surviving children and the traditions of a strictly ruled court. But let us not ignore the tragedies, for they befitted a woman of such great beauty: not only did her daughter die as a toddler, her favorite sister burned to death in a fire; her dearest cousin succumbed to madness; and then, of course, in 1889, there was the incident at a remote forest chalet called Mayerling in which Sisi’s son, thirty-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf, shot first his teenage mistress, Mary Vetsera, and then himself. The shocking demise of the crown prince and the ensuing scandal heralded the de facto end of the Hapsburg monarchy; the succession skipped Sisi’s surviving daughters and went to Rudolf’s cousin Franz Ferdinand. But nobody actually feels sorrow for the death of a monarch from more than a century ago — rather, as when an iconic movie star dies young, one feels it appropriate that they fulfilled their mythic role, that they behaved in a way befitting their stature, relieving us of the proxy shame that comes from watching someone we have relegated to another world become one of us, in age. The tragedies that dogged Sisi throughout her life offered a thrill I can now best compare to lust; it was matched only by what I felt at the time in seeing her tiny perfume vials, her personal heroin syringes, and the hairbrush she used upon those endless tresses. 

In an era defined by its own apotheosis (those were the autumn days of the Hapsburg Empire), Sisi was a symptom as much as a facilitator of Romanticism, and she indulged in the arts and the imagination. She adored the poet Heine enough to keep his portrait in her chambers, and wrote her own poetry about alienation and melancholy. A trendsetter as much as a slave to beauty, Sisi worked meticulously, cultishly, on her body. She regimented herself with gymnastic exercises and undertook strict diets, such as the consuming of animal juices, to avoid weight gain. Sisi learned Hungarian, required of all Hapsburg emperors, at court — the idea of Hungary, with its wide, sweeping plains associated with distance, longing, soulfulness, a more proximate Orientalism — and became so sympathetic to Hungarian culture and causes, she successfully advocated for the “double monarchy,” granting a restricted autonomy to the Hungarian aristocracy. When her tenure as a representative figure in an absolutist monarchy failed to satisfy, Sisi indulged her restlessness by traveling abroad. The personification of the Romantic ideal became her vocation: in a court where agreeableness and duty, an Austrian modesty or quaintness, were mandatory, she was extravagant. From the outdoorsy tomboy, she became the woman who rode alone on her black horse in the moonlight. As was fashionable among the aristocracy in those days, Sisi had a tattoo — her shoulder was adorned with an anchor. We might imagine this symbolized that she might be her own anchor, that just as the aggravating musical number from the hapless nineties musical Elisabeth would sing, Ich gehör’ nur mir, she belonged only to herself. 

The weird tragedy of the monarch, who has their character bestowed upon them, whose lifework is maintaining this bestowed persona, is the impossibility of their further recognition or poetic achievement. When something is already elevated, elevated to that absolute degree, it cannot be elevated any further. Creative expression becomes futile, curiously laughable. No matter how soberly we may consider the role of the artist in our society, they still must come from a space of the unknown, the common, to merit attention. “Sisi” is a cliché that can be found repeated in all images of ill-fated, frustrated royalty and movie stars, from the Romanov children — whose personal Kodak photography, digitized at Yale, offers a perverse little ghost story, a portent of the age of hypersurveillance — to Grace Kelly — who, as a princess, denied the title role of Hitchcock’s Marnie by her people, sought creative fulfillment in making collages out of pressed flowers — to thwarted singer-dancer Diana Spencer. 

The double image of Sisi, at once chaste heroine and dark traveler, as cultivated by Austrian tourism boards and national fantasies, symbolized a past that had no implication for, made no insinuation at all toward the present. Though the Hapsburg monarchy ended just a little more than one hundred years ago, its existence, present in buildings and statues and the layout of Vienna’s boulevards, seems as remote as the medieval churches and Baroque palais, as the Roman sewage and heating systems excavated outside the Imperial Palace, which are all, in their historicity, part of one indiscriminately distant world.

Even as children, we knew of Sisi’s many faces. For instance, synonymous with Sisi there was Romy Schneider, the actress whose performance as Sisi is certainly the most beloved. So completely was Schneider dissolved into Sisi that, when as a treat after that one visit to the Hermesvilla, perhaps the one during which I saw the fateful file, I was offered a postcard of my choosing and I, naturally, asked for one of “Sisi!” a lady at the museum’s front desk gave me two options:

1. A print of the iconic Franz Xaver Winterhalter painting of the empress in her starry white gown, or

2. That same portrait, but with Romy Schneider as Sissi, die junge Kaiserin, in a promotional photograph for the 1955 movie that started the Sissi movie franchise.1

At a childhood friend’s house, a poster of Romy Schneider’s face in her later, more sexy years was glued to the inside of the WC door. “Romy!” we first graders called her, because there was no other, just like “Sisi!” — and there we could sit and gaze uninterruptedly, contemplating Romy Schneider’s face. Occupying this small space, frequently together, meant indulging in stories we had overheard about both the empress and her mime. Just the association of those features with the smell of the toilet bowl made the stories feel lurid. 

Romy Schneider, as I learned from the visits to my friend’s bathroom, had more in common with Sisi than their odd pictorial intertwining. There were the terrible facts of Romy’s tragic and abbreviated life: both Sisi and Romy had been boosted from Bavarian obscurity to world fame in their midteens; both had felt isolated in their positions and rebelled against the norms and values of the institutions that held them in such privileged and tight constraint; both spawned myths of their sexual and rebellious exploits; both continued relentlessly in the pursuit of self-expression; and each had been, as they say, a mater dolorosa, having lost a son to a tragic, even absurd incident. Both came from dynasties: Sisi, of course, descending from the same Bavarian kings as her husband, Franz Josef, and Romy from a lineage of Austrian actors, her own grandmother, Rosa Albach-Retty, a so-called court actress, having performed for the Empress Elisabeth herself — according to Romy Schneider’s biographer Günter Krenn, this position granted Albach-Retty the intimacy of observing, in person, the sixty-year-old empress, just months before her assassination, publicly and unabashedly handling her set of dentures at a roadside Gasthaus.2  

Romy Schneider was born in 1938, six months into the Anschluss. Her famous actor-parents were Nazi sympathizers; in fact, director Bertrand Tavernier would later relay Romy’s tearful allusion that her mother had been a personal friend, perhaps even a lover, of Adolf Hitler.3 Romy was sixteen when she was chosen to star in the first Sissi movie (the first of a trilogy), and on the day of the film’s release in December 1955, the Second Republic of Austria had been independent just a few months; it had been admitted to the United Nations a dozen days prior. A whole nation was in the process of reconfiguration, thirsting to cast away its memories of the past generation, the occupation, the two great wars, Austro-fascism, and the brief civil war. Naturally, the imagination would rather return to the epitome of the good old days, the age of empire and waltzes. Schneider’s Sissi is a gracious tomboy, a reluctant empress whose heart belongs to the Alps of Bavaria. When necessary, she can slip into imperialist garb. This Sissi might suffer constraints and setbacks, but never the morbid, kinky, romantic extremes of the real empress. A universal fairy tale, the decidedly apolitical Sissi franchise was a smash hit across Europe.

The Sissi trilogy used to flicker, on special holidays, across our grandmothers’ television screens. Always on the second of the two Austrian television stations, the one that was reserved for a specific type of movie: the Heimatfilm, Heimat signifying not just home but homeland, that famous word straddling the adjectives heimlich, secretive, and unheimlich, uncanny. A Heimatfilm is often set in the mountains. Bordering on the artistic, in the 1920s the genre was known as the Bergfilm, or mountain film, pioneered by the mountaineer-turned-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, the evolution of which film theorist Siegfried Kracauer points to as the embodiment of pro-Nazi tendencies in the pre-Hitler period. Frequently, mountain films, such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932), which Riefenstahl directed and starred in herself, feature a mystical young girl — a spirited, barefoot tomboy, think a teenage Heidi — and a sentimental attitude toward nature and civilization, playing against the monumental backdrop of high mountains, snow, clouds, and rock. Romy’s Sissi comes across as such a mountain girl, a simple girl from a simpler time, the kind who lacks intellect but contains a holy natural wisdom, in a world that aligns with Walt Disney’s declawed renditions of Grimms’ fairy tales. And yet, condemning the kitsch of the Sissi films seems just too convenient. A cult following emerged, with Sissi becoming queer shorthand not just for her name (sissy) but for the excessive gowns and wigs, the kittenish glances and husky girl-voice, topics for the lipstick-wearing men who sold secondhand books at the flea market. By the mid-2000s, the Sissi trilogy was distributed in DVD cases wrapped in red plush. With a wink, Romy’s Sissi was infused with the Romy she would become, the same Romy who not much later will kiss a female teacher on the lips in the intrepid, if conservative, 1958 remake of lesbian cult classic Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform, 1931), the Romy whose numerous subsequent performances are known for their naked emotion and almost lurid intensity.

Even then, Romy’s young empress is no helpless damsel. She is faced with shrill-voiced stepmother figures and plenty of courtly antagonism, yet she continuously manages to advocate for herself. Prancing through forests and hills, across Technicolor ballrooms, she successfully convinces the Emperor Franz Josef (piercingly: “Franzl! ”) to abandon his duties and go mountain climbing. Up in a windy Alpine hut, among goats and common people, Franzl and Sisi eat hearty bread and agree that exploring the outdoors is truly the best way to know their great empire. 

All of us who grew up with these films have suffered the toothache of their excessive sweetness — and yet, facing newer and drearier renditions of the Sisi myth, I cannot help but find the memory of the Romy-Sissi films the more progressive. It seemed understood, tacit, that what we were watching was what we longed for and yet also knew to be hysterically idealized fiction. In fact, this exact silliness remains the source of their appeal. 

At the origin of the Austrian mountain film, more than a century ago, ideologies and culture intertwined to produce the early equivalent of the action-adventure movie: technological advancement, landscape, skiing, mountaineering, athletic body cult, and nationalism. Though they are moving to behold, the films tend toward right-wing ideologies. Riefenstahl of course would go on to make Hitler’s most famous propaganda film, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935), which, with its monumental opening scene above the clouds, presents as a kind of mountain film. (In an aside in her famous 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag points out that Riefenstahl once also played Mary Vetsera, Crown Prince Rudolf’s unfortunate companion in his murder-suicide pact at Mayerling.) For all the above reasons, the mountain film leaves an offputting aftertaste. It is the quintessential signifier of the simplistic philosophies of fascism, which are limited to purity and essentialism, the veneration of the strong, the pristine, and the athletically fit. 

But mountains have another effect: they are more eternal than we believe ourselves to be. That is why, if you watch a 1915 silent mountain film by Fanck today, and the Swiss mountain range looks almost identical to the way it does now, as you see it in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), you can feel your bones shake as you realize how, briefly, film has allowed us the opportunity to time travel, to receive glimpses of gestures and messages from more than a century ago.

Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage is no mountain film. If it belongs to any genre at all beyond biopic, you might call it ruin porn, a romantic style originating on social media platforms such as Tumblr and Pinterest, showing foggy, derelict amusement parks, the mossy remains of concrete-lined pools, abandoned playgrounds, and various Chernobyl-adjacent locations. A film poster anticipates Sisi’s new sad-girl sass: she holds a gloved middle finger up to the camera. Corsage allows Sisi more complaint than subversion of her situation. People are peevish and bratty, including Sisi. Desaturated photography shows palaces in disrepair. Statues are eroding, facades peeling. But the supposed dialogue with darkness remains unintentionally surface level: the film’s prominent use of the color violet (a color associated with the empress) gives the feeling of a supremely bleak ad campaign for chocolate. Following any scene set within the chilly palace chambers, the camera traipses through service hallways and elevators, with anachronistic plastic buckets and telephones scattered throughout. Repeatedly, Vicky Krieps’s bleary-eyed Elisabeth lies sprawled across the floor, her attempts at autonomy and connection frustrated. In its endless progression of empty, aestheticized whimsy, Corsage feels like the inverse of another anachronistic movie about an ill-fated Austrian royal, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), but totally lacking Coppola’s heroine’s batty obliviousness, which endears the queen to the viewer. 

Public consensus lauded Corsage as fresh and revolutionary — the long-overdue rebuffing of the heteronormative, gender-oppressive Romy-Sissi films, which we, the enlightened present, are gradually (supposedly) learning to read more critically. Krieps and Kreutzer’s collaboration is clearly intended to dissolve a saccharine icon into the most banal feminist critique: Sisi, like all movie stars and actresses, is faced with the hyperbolic scrutiny to which society subjects femininity. But this thesis, which underlies a willful indifference in the persona and phenomenon Sisi constitutes, is based on one big misunderstanding: Sisi — she’s not just like us! Configuring herself according to myth — a fairy queen, an idea, not even human — was her one great poetic feat.

Regardless of historical reality (it’s hard to argue that Sisi, with her visible anorexia and gloomy poetry, was not suffering), Corsage makes little use of Vicky Krieps’s intrepidness. In her role as usurper in Phantom Thread (2017), Krieps so masterfully resists victimization; now, her lack of subversive success can be interpreted only as impotence, an unheroic succumbing to the status quo. As Krieps’s Elisabeth jumps out of windows, off horses, and even, weirdly, from big boats (spoiler alert: this version of Sisi is not assassinated), her melancholy becomes an annoyance. And so, by trying to do everything the Romy-Sissi films did not, Corsage does something even worse. Unlike Spencer — in which we see Diana and her young sons escape the wicked castle, an ending that sticks more bitterly for its association with Diana’s violent end — it is impossible to watch Corsage and see the Empress Elisabeth emerge as what she so carefully, reclusively, styled herself to be: a heroine. 

One all-too-necessary subversion of the Sissi films has already occurred, enacted by Romy Schneider herself. In 1972, under the guidance of Italian director Luchino Visconti, she reprised the role of Empress Elisabeth for his cinematic epic Ludwig, based on the life of Sisi’s cousin, the tormented young King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Helmut Berger). Her performance is the purest example of cinematic haunting. As the film’s narrative core, Schneider’s new Elisabeth is Ludwig’s muse and mentor, his personal Wagnerian Valkyrie, shrewd yet glowing, strategic yet filled with deep emotion, and brimming with contempt for the situation around her. Unlike the Kreutzer-Krieps Elisabeth, Schneider’s empress is too intelligent and willful to let herself be subsumed. Schneider, now thirty-four, walks at a swifter pace, flashing smiles filled with savage irony. In every scene she seems on her way to somewhere else, a city, not a mountain, eager not to be present; it seems as if her disappointment in her surroundings has made her inaccessible. Monarchy, she tells the young King Ludwig, these roles attributed to them, are not at all about them or their self-realization. “People will forget about us,” she muses, gazing into an autumn garden, “unless we are assassinated! ” (Ludwig later drowned alongside his personal doctor in what may have been, like the death of the crown prince, a murder-suicide.) The effect of this reprisal is uncanny, a film-historical trick played by Schneider and Visconti: still we see the features that were once plump and guileless. Elisabeth is also Sissi — just older, slyer, more jaded and imperious. The change feels sharp and strangely personal. It elicits in the viewer a mixture of joyful pride and pain. The opportunity itself feels decadent: how often do we get to see a movie star haunt herself?

Visconti’s Ludwig — catalyzed by Schneider’s performance — inquires into our fascination with royalty and monarchy, commonplace as it is, from our childhood identification with princes and princesses in stories to observing the passage of time through the eyes of a famous crowned head, whose sole purpose, it seems, is just this: pure catharsis. Constraint, the delicious corset, has the power to drive a plot forward, and as we know from all popular novels, movies, fairy tales (see the Netflix soap opera Young Royals, 2021–22), we will identify with nothing more than an elevated character — the youngest, the most beautiful, the immediate in line of succession, attributes that must all fall into a heroine’s lap, that must come to her against her will. Though facts and historical accuracy feature heavily in Ludwig, their rigidity allows the film’s intrinsic story to emerge, the story we all carry within us: that of the artist, the idealist, and the visionary rebelling against constraint, seeking the ultimate self-expression.

Rebellion against constraint: whom else would we look to? If Sisi was a reluctant empress, Romy Schneider was a reluctant product. She went back and forth on her stances and presentations, on her wish to please and her wish to rebel, her acceptance and her abhorrence of her own passivity. In her life-spanning career, she would make several gestures revealing her progressive politics. One example might be her presence, along with dozens of other notable German women, on that notorious June 1971 cover of the West German Stern magazine, which declared, “Wir haben abgetrieben!” (“We have had abortions!”) 

Romy’s greatest transgression and subversion constituted both a personal and a career choice: she eloped with France (the old enemy!) both literally and figuratively. Her high-profile teenage romance with then up-and-coming star Alain Delon, whose commercial success as an actor quickly surpassed hers, became a media circus that culminated in Romy’s seeking independence and maturity abroad. German-language cinema had not only pigeonholed but patronized her; now she pursued greater artistic challenges, on the stage and screen, in Italy and France. 

In my teens, Viennese antique shops trading in movie star memorabilia had two kinds of folders for the Romy Schneider fan: one with film stills, lobby cards, and postcards of Romy before the flight to France, and one for the many films that came after. As the shopkeepers used to say, it was rare you found a collector of both. The rupture constituted a kind of betrayal. Veteran of the Sisi cult of my girlhood, offspring of the same generation that along with Romy resisted the ideology of their parents, I too found it hard to look at the before folder.

Schneider’s progressivism isn’t entirely overt in her choice of collaborations. She dismissed the French Nouvelle Vague (in particular, Jean-Luc Godard) as “too cerebral” and became the mentee of Visconti. A gay man, Visconti was famous for his reverence for women, his composing of their personas, and his fraught fascination with nineteenth-century German culture. Schneider worked uncompromisingly with the greatest names of European and American cinema: Andrzej Żulawski, Claude Chabrol, Claude Sautet, Bertrand Tavernier, Orson Welles, Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey. She played career women, self-defined women, polyamorous women, lustful women, several lesbian women, war victims, war survivors, cancer patients, criminals, nymphomaniacs, Communists, sex workers, housewives, love interests, writers, et cetera. Consistently she imbued her roles with a playful eroticism, part of her artistry. There is also a certain frumpiness about her, which can be seen only from today’s vantage point. When German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder approached Schneider about making yet another Sisi film, their meeting was unsuccessful. Schneider called Fassbinder’s vision “über-über melodramatic,” and Fassbinder called Schneider a “stupid cow.” One cannot help but wish for a different outcome to this meeting, considering a Sisi film with Romy that contains the skill of Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) yet presages the era of his glittering Lili Marleen (1981). I used to think of Schneider’s avoidance of Godard and Fassbinder as an aesthetic conservatism, but as much as I regret it, I see her decision as equally brave — Romy Schneider did not work with bullies. Instead, gradually, Schneider shaped an artistic career that was entirely, incomparably her own. 

The life of Romy Schneider invites the drawing of parallels, and not just with Sisi: Schneider seems intentionally to have played characters whose disastrous fates and beauty echo her own, allude to her biographical features. To accommodate the Austrian lilt in her French speech, for instance, a short explanation might be tacked on to her character, noting a German origin, as happens in Max et les ferrailleurs (Max and the Junkmen, 1971). Other times, Schneider martyrs herself into becoming her own Nazi-revenge fantasy, as seen in her immolation in Le vieux fusil (The Old Gun, also known as Vengeance One by One, 1975). “Nothing is colder than an old love,” she deadpanned about her failed romance with Delon, while her dripping, sunkissed limbs crisscrossed Delon’s in La piscine (The Swimming Pool, 1969). 

… …

New York, fall 2016: a paparazzi picture shows actress Kristen Stewart with her back turned to us, head bowed and hands in pockets, one foot raised on a step, in line behind someone wearing a bomber jacket with two words in red embroidery:

ROMY SCHNEIDER

Did Stewart ever lift her eyes and see these words in front of her, and if she did, did they strike up recognition, not just as the spelling of a famous name but for the quasi-ancestral significance the name invokes for her, specifically?

Both Schneider and Stewart were born into show business, but neither was classically trained; instead, each woman’s acting is very much her own style, a fusion of gnawing carnality mixed with jaded charisma. At a young age, in their early teens, they come to represent the faces of some of the biggest romantic franchises targeted at young girls ever invented. Their private lives are as curated as those of the stars of the Hollywood studio system, and their franchises represent traditional values, fantastical dreams of the chosen girl who will become the bride of an enormous empire or of a glamorous vampire family. Both actresses rebel, artistically and socially. To a certain degree, they leave their countries. They betray; they experiment; they collaborate with others. Both keep on playing themselves, using their own intensity and neuroses to power their performances. They went on to become the only non-French-speaking actresses to win France’s biggest acting award, the César. Both engage in cinematic hauntings. Of us, of themselves. 

In 2012, Kristen Stewart — then known as the hugely successful, inaccessible Hollywood starlet who refused to smile, whose bleak poetry was leaked onto the internet and widely mocked — asked to audition for Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Assayas had envisioned his project as a loose adaptation of Fassbinder’s Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972), about an older and a younger woman bound in a sadomasochistic relationship. Assayas had intended for Stewart to parody herself as the uncontrollable starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (ultimately portrayed by Chloë Grace Moretz). But Stewart had been eyeing a different role: that of Valentine, the earnest and competent assistant to the protagonist, an actress suffering an artistic crisis (Juliette Binoche). A typical Assayas character, Valentine lies somewhere on the gradient between hyperrealism and the surreal, and as the action of the film plays out against a backdrop of mountains and cloudscapes, Valentine gravitates toward the role of Mountain Girl of the Bergfilm: a good-natured presence under the influence of the natural world. In her final scene, Valentine veritably merges with the Alps around her. 

Meanwhile, as Binoche’s assistant, Stewart gets to perform an even more interesting twist than just satirizing herself: she may speak her side of the story, but from an off angle, unassumingly and humorously, refracted through the prism of her performance. Offhandedly, Valentine-Stewart gets to remark that Jo-Ann Ellis is “not completely antiseptic like the rest of Hollywood.” 

This commentary reminds me of how Romy Schneider used Sisi in Visconti’s Ludwig: in what is essentially a film about idealism and thwarted creative impulse, the 1972 Romy-Sisi is setting a record straight — not about the 1950s Sissi but about the constraints the role set upon her, on both her and Sisi, and the creative propulsion that followed. Both the real-life empress and the real-life Romy Schneider struggled with their complicated personalities in the public eye, and Romy, whose life also was marked by tragedy (her ex-husband committed suicide before their young son perished in a freak accident, in 1981, a year before Romy herself would die from cardiac arrest at the age of forty-three) would come to echo Sisi in the minds of audiences far more than she would have liked. At long last, Romy could portray the real Sisi, the transgressor, the seducer, the jilted artist, the political strategist.

What thrills me and irritates me about seeing Kristen Stewart in the films of Olivier Assayas is that we now view her less as herself but as ourselves, the people in the dark watching the film stars: propping the stars up as one of the unnamed and anonymous in the unfulfilled masses, for without us audience members — we who labor out of love, out of a need to be filled with entertainment, now that we no longer have gods or kings or magic — without us the film star would not exist . . .  And yet this role, this part of playing the maker of the star, the watcher of the star (see also Stewart’s role in The Happiest Season, 2020, in which her character, a mild-mannered lesbian, anxiously watches the inexplicably cruel behavior of a closeted girlfriend) seems to be the sole experience that may have been denied Stewart, who like Schneider was a child actor and then a star since her early teens, in the Twilight Saga franchise, which resembles in many ways the Sissi movies in its sanctification of motherhood, its desexualizing of romance, its fatalistic nationalism, and its purified heroine. 

The Twilight Saga, like the Sissi trilogy, has developed into a camp classic, with the lip-biting, blank-staring “KStew” becoming a tongue-in-cheek lesbian icon. Spanning the years of the first Obama administration, the Twilight movies emit a nostalgia for an America on a strange and invisible brink, an America that seems unfathomable today: we know now that eventually the girls who loved Twilight, once split on whether Stewart’s Bella should kiss either a vampire or a werewolf, eventually became the adults of a divided country; who knows when female American teens, progressive and conservative, were ever so united as during the reign of the Twilight franchise?

Invocations of ghosts become integral to Kristen Stewart’s filmography. In Personal Shopper (2016), again directed by Assayas, Stewart plays Maureen, a medium awaiting a message from her deceased twin. While Maureen stakes out the vicious spirits residing in an empty villa on the outskirts of Paris, she hustles as an assistant to a high-profile celebrity named Kyra. Maureen functions not only as double to Kyra’s body, whose fashion she tests on herself, but also to Kyra’s tastes and affinities. Despite her preoccupation with spiritualism and her dialogue with the beyond, Maureen shakes and stutters in the face of her movie star employer’s rage. Maureen fears Kyra, but much as in the Twilight Saga, in which Stewart’s character is romantically entangled with monsters, fear becomes an aphrodisiac. Hungrily, Maureen grasps jewelry and accessories, measuring them for their sensation; she touches fabrics and leather, deriving pleasure from objects that will never be hers, possibly because she will never possess them. Then, in a climactic scene, we see her break a taboo: despite being absolutely forbidden to do so, Maureen tries on one of Kyra’s gowns, complete with a harness, and uses the transgression to achieve erotic fulfillment.

It’s a scene that resurfaces in Spencer, another film in which Stewart simultneously plays at spirit channeling and leveling of herself with her own persona as well as the persona of the Princess of Wales: given a heavy new gown, Diana-Stewart asks to be excused so she can put on the dress and masturbate. Spencer settles on Diana’s inner landscape. It has no interest in sharing any historical facts, anything that could be read on a Wikipedia page. Indeed, Stewart’s mimetic performance (in interviews, she compared her acting to an invocation of Diana’s ghost) might look and sound astonishingly like Diana, but the film opens with the subtitle A Fable from a True Tragedy. Paradoxically, because this Diana is intentionally preconfigured as any princess, she can now be any one of us. At odds with the family she has married into, Diana becomes lost in her own dreamworld and hauntings. Physical objects, foods, jewelry — all become charged with supernatural qualities and beauty. As Diana wanders across the English landscape, she removes an old jacket from a scarecrow, identifying it as her father’s, and wears it. At night she breaks into her childhood home, now a ruin inhabited by the ghost of Anne Boleyn. 

Larraín’s attention to clothing and mysterious houses reminds me of Assayas’s films’ knack of loading inanimate objects with a soulfulness, a consciousness. It was the villa in Personal Shopper that struck me, personally, as if I had known it myself. The empty rooms Maureen searches in the dark, so dark the doorframes and silhouettes of sparse furniture are almost indistinguishable, the windows rattling, resemble, on a smaller scale, those of the Hermesvilla, both restored and furnished as I knew it in my childhood, and desolate as I imagine it in its past.

During the years between the wars, Austro-fascism, and finally the Second World War, the Hermesvilla fell into disuse. Doors and windows were plundered for firewood by a starving and traumatized population; the humidity of the surrounding forests corroded carpets, curtains, and upholstery. Gradually, the paintings on walls and ceilings came crumbling down. Even while Romy Schneider was cast as Sissi in Technicolor bombast, the glass in the windows of the Hermesvilla had vanished and the openings would be boarded up against the elements. It would be another two and a half decades until the villa would be restored to the public and turned into the museum, turned from a “palace of dreams” to a dream destination for the people of Vienna. And that is how I came to know it, to know Sisi.

… …

My mother died this past fall. She was in her early sixties, but she had always seemed younger. Ten days after her death, I found myself at the Hermesvilla again. The windows were once more boarded up, perhaps for the winter, perhaps because of the pandemic. For the first time, I noticed the asymmetry of the villa’s structure, how a whole wing looked like it was missing a floor. Outdoor tables, dusty with cigarette ash, offered little of what I had remembered as a bustling café. The fountain with the statues of forest fowl had run dry. Was this ruin porn? Against a darkening blue sky, the foliage shone bright orange, and in the depths of the trees, young deer stood close. My brain recited the anxious lines of an Eichendorff poem: Hast ein Reh Du lieb vor andern, lass es nicht alleine grasen / Jäger ziehen im Wald und blasen / Stimmen hin und wider wandern. (Should you love one deer above the others, do not let it graze alone / Hunters are roaming in the woods and calling / Voices wander to and fro.)

I was feeling heart-piercing protectiveness for the park, for Sisi, for my mother. So sudden had been her illness, and originating from so tiny and insignificant-seeming a spot inside her body, that I could not help but think again of the stabbing file that had so effectively done away with Sisi. Unlike Sisi, my mother had been a sanguine personality, but she had also been a poet, restless and self-indulgent, an ardent subscriber to spiritualism, and once, when I was twelve, she was ravaged by bouts of melancholy so ferocious I spent the rest of my youth fretting that she might throw herself off something. In my adulthood, she and I rarely shared the same space. We would visit the same place, but hardly ever together, unintentionally out of step, occasionally showing up in the same city only once the other had left. Sisi, the great creator of distance, would choose her Hungarian estate and trips to Corfu over the Hermesvilla. Her specter, too, is one of perpetual absence. The analogy, drawn in my grief, between my mother and the figure Sisi represented is new to me. Living in a world without both these women, I suddenly, confusingly felt like I was the mother, that I was out to take care of them. 

I could not have felt farther away from another memory: as a teenager in the mid-2000s, I was hired by a tourism company to impersonate Sisi, the Sisi of the Franz Xaver Winterhalter painting, with the voluminous white gown and the stars in her hair. In a costume warehouse with rows and rows of gowns meant for film studios and opera houses, I was dressed and given a wig, and I remember my childish delight, similar to what I felt on those Sunday afternoons in the Hermesvilla among Sisi’s belongings, but also not unlike what Maureen in Personal Shopper may have felt, a queer giddy joy in the drag, as if I were inside another woman, in the most exciting way. What else is desire but the wish to do away with an impossibly unbridgeable difference, a journey along the asymptote of becoming one with the beloved being? It was many times better than my other encounters with the women I have loved as movie stars, as I sat in so many dark rooms, and from the screen they looked down upon me and other strangers.


1. Here, an s was added to Sisi’s name, distinguishing the real empress from her fictional counterpart. In conversation, however, the two were one—Sisi and Sissi are pronounced the same.

2. Günter Krenn, Romy Schneider (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 2008), 18.

3. Krenn, 23.

A bicultural writer from Vienna, Sophie Strohmeier has published one novel in German, Küss mich, Libussa (edition a, 2013). Her English-language essays and fiction have appeared in Apofenie and the Missouri Review, and on WQXR.org. She lives in New York City.

Read More

Subscribe

Your free registration with Kenyon review incudes access to exclusive content, early access to program registration, and more.

Donate

With your support, we’ll continue 
to cultivate talent and publish extraordinary literature from diverse voices around the world.