• Sissi Collection, The




    Released by: Film Movement
    Release date: October 31, 2017
    Directed by: Ernst Marischka
    Cast: Romy Schneider, Karhlheinz Bohm, Vilma Degischer, Erich Nikowitz, Peter Weck, Magda Schneider/Romy Schneider, Adrian Hoven, Magda Schneider, Karl Ludwig Diehl, Christi Mardayn, Paul Horbiger, Rudolf Vogel, Peter Weck
    Year: 1955/1956/1957/1954/1962
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    The Movies:

    Sissi:

    Duke Maximilian Joseph and his wife, Princess Ludovika, lead an idyllic life with their eight children at Possenhofen Castle in Bavaria. The eldest child is pretty but conservative Helene (nicknamed Nene by her family). The second eldest, Elizabeth (nicknamed Sissi) is considerably more carefree. Closest to her hunter-father, Sissi prefers outdoors to indoors and animals to people. She hunts, fishes, and takes nature hikes where she adopts and feeds stray animals. One day, her mother gets a letter from her sister, Archduchess Sophie, inviting them to Austria. Sophie hopes to marry Helene to her son Franz Joseph I, the handsome young emperor of Austria. Franz resists being married off by his mother, hoping instead to meet and fall in love with a woman on his own, but he humors her regardless. Fearing that if she and Helene travel to Austria alone her husband might cotton to what’s going on, Princess Ludovika decides to take Sissi along as a ruse. Sophie doesn’t like Sissi and makes it clear that the girl won’t be invited to any social functions. Planning on keeping Sissy from ruining things for her sister, Ludovika locks the younger girl in her room, but Sissi sneaks out to go fishing. While casting her line, she accidentally snares the jacket of a passerby, one who happens to be none other than Emperor Franz. Franz is immediately smitten with the young woman, having no idea who she really is, and invites her to go hunting the next day. There, he professes his love for her, and later, at a cotillion, he chooses her over her sister, causing rifts in both his family and hers.

    Sissi—The Young Empress:

    The second film picks up almost immediately where the first film left off, with young empress Sissi having to adjust to life with a husband, a new place, and without her parents and siblings. Worst of all is her evil bitch of a mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, who despises Sissi and does everything possible to make her life miserable, including interfering in her marriage as well as in matters of state. Things grow worse when Sissi gives birth to her first child, a daughter, whom Sophie insists on raising herself while Sissi is forced onto the road—and into the spotlight—as Empress. Sophie says that the arrangement is best for both Sissi and the baby, since Sissi is a new mother with no experience raising children, though Sissi (and the audience) knows better. Eventually growing tired of her situation, Sissi leaves her husband and goes back to her family. Franz Joseph follows her and begs her to return to him, which she does after telling her father what life is like under Sophie. After convincing her husband to support equal rights for Hungarians in the Empire, her influence and popularity grows while Sophie’s wanes. As the movie draws to its conclusion, Sissi solidifies her status when the people of Hungary crown her queen.

    Sissi—The Fateful Years of an Empress:

    After leaving a tour of Hungary for fear of what her relationship with a count will lead to, Sissi returns to Vienna, where she again faces a husband who is always working and a mother-in-law who is always interfering. Sissi and her husband decide to vacation, but Sissi becomes ill and is diagnosed with tuberculosis, which leads to Franz Josef once again turning their daughter over to his mother’s care. Meanwhile, Sissi is sent to warmer and healthier climes, where it is hoped that she can fully recover, though her sanity is threatened by separation from her family. Her mother nurses her back to health, however, and Sissi rejoins her husband as he tours northern Italy, where they are greeted by the stone-cold animosity of a people who wish to be separated from Austrian rule and returned to their homeland of Italy. Things grow progressively chillier (though there’s plenty of comic relief to offset the cold), until, at the film’s climax, Sissi is reunited with her daughter in St. Mark’s Square, Venice. When the crowd sees the emotional reunion, they fall in love with Sissi just as the Hungarians did.

    Victoria in Dover:

    Lord Melbourne Douglass (Karl Ludwig Diehl), Great Britain’s prime minster, arranges for young Queen Victoria (Romy Schneider), to marry her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg (Adrian Hoven), whom she has never met. Torn between doing what is best for her country and doing what is best for her (by deciding for herself whom she should marry), Victoria takes her lady-in-waiting (Magda Schneider) and runs off to Dover for a respite. While there, she meets a handsome young man who is charming and urbane, the antithesis of what she imagines Prince Albert to be. She soon falls in love, little knowing that the man she’s met is, in actuality, Prince Albert himself.

    Background and Critical Assessment:

    Romy Schneider made her first film, When the White Lilacs Bloom Again, at the age of 15 in 1953. An important supporting role, she followed it up the next year with a similar part in Fireworks before being cast in her first lead performance in Victoria in Dover, also 1954. Starring alongside her mother, Schneider was typecast for the remainder of the 1950s as a charming innocent rebelling against the manipulations of adults who want desperately to control her but cannot. In part because of Schneider’s delightful and charismatic performance, the film did well in box offices across Europe, even garnering a U.S. release under the title The Story of Vickie in 1958 (dubbed into English, it was released by Disney’s Buena Vista). The film’s success led to Schneider being cast in Sissi in 1955, a film that bore a similar story, a similar approach, the same director, and many of the same actors, including her own mother, Magda Schneider. Born into a family of actors, her career was overseen by her mother, who guided her into a life of the pictures, often accompanying her daughter in supporting roles. In Sissi as in real life, Magda played Romy’s mother. The film proved an even bigger success in Europe than Victoria in Dover had been, leading to two more films in the series, after which Schneider tired of the role and, rebelling against her own mother’s wishes, quit the series to pursue more artistic ventures abroad and with more famous directors.

    Sissi is certainly an entertaining film, though the formula begins to tire with the second in the series, and by the time the third rolls around, it’s grown downright stale. Even actors of Schneider and Bohm’s experience and skills can’t save it. Making matters worse is just how unfaithful it is to history; in real life, the Empress Sissi was a depressed woman who avoided her husband at all costs, though he apparently loved and doted on her. She traveled abroad with a woman who may or may not have been her lover, living for months at a time away from her spouse. After her first child was taken from her by her mother-in-law, she set her foot down with her second, a son, though her own ill health and depression worked against her in establishing a strong relationship with him. Outsiders should have seen that something was up, given her obsession with remaining thin, her frequent coughs when around her husband and mother-in-law, and her inability to eat while in Vienna, symptoms that plagued her to a much lesser degree while away from home. Her own depression deepened, however, when her son became of age and, in what quickly become known as the Mayerling Incident, killed himself and his girlfriend when it became obvious that his girlfriend was going to leave him. (The couple’s bodies where found in a hunting lodge named Mayerling.) Just the year before, Sissi had lost her father, and in the next two years she lost her sister and her mother, a series of blows from which she never recovered. And though she never physically returned to her husband, they did become friends through constant correspondence. Sissi’s life ended tragically in 1898, when, at the age of 60, she was stabbed to death by a self-proclaimed anarchist who had originally planned to kill the Duke of Orleans; when that prospect became impossible and after hearing that the Empress would be catching a boat ride nearby, the assassin approached her and stabbed her through the heart in the presence of her traveling companion. She stumbled onto the boat, but traveling incognito, the boat’s captain tried to put her off, advising her friend to take her back to her hotel; because the ship had already set sail, however, she was carried to the top deck, where she was asked if she were in pain, to which she replied “No,” lost consciousness, and died. Needless to say, the films cover very little of the truth, instead presenting the Emperor and Empress’s love as a deep and abiding one.

    Schneider’s own life was no less tragic and, in some respects, followed a similar path. Passing in and out of a number of relationships, Schneider gave birth to a son, David, in 1966. At the age of 14 in 1981, while visiting his stepfather’s parent’s house, the boy attempted to climb a spiked fence but slipped, punctured his femoral artery, and bled to death. Schneider herself became an alcoholic and, the very next year, was found in her Paris apartment, dead from cardiac arrest.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Film movement brings all but Paramount’s amalgamation of the Sissi films, along with Victoria in Dover, to Blu-ray with MPEG-4 AVC encodes in 1080p high definition. All three of the Sissi films come in two aspect ratios, their original German theatrical ratio of 1.37:1, and a more flatscreen-friendly 1.78:1, while Victoria is presented only in 1.78:1. Picture quality varies slightly from film to film, with the Sissi films at least given new 2K transfers. Modern viewers who care more about their televisions than about the films shown on them will likely prefer the widescreen presentations; film buffs should opt for the full-frame presentations. (No matter the ratio, however, the same transfers were obviously used, though there’s considerably more grain on the 1.78:1 versions.) Of the three Sissi films, the first one looks the best; it’s relatively sharp, with a fairly high degree of detail in the many outdoor sequences, where the beauty of Germany and Vienna is showcased (the films were shot in many places actually visited by the empress). Colors present a rich tapestry of reds and greens and blues, giving the film something of a Christmas look despite not being set in wintertime (appropriate considering the films’ reputations as holiday classics in Eastern Europe). It should be noted that these films were shot in a German color process, not in Technicolor, and that people more familiar with Hollywood product will see some differences. Grain is mild in the 1.37:1 presentations, in part because there’s been a touch of DNR to lessen it, leading to a few soft spots. DNR and softness is a bigger problem with the remainder of the films in the set than with the first one, though; in the later films, detail takes something of a backseat. But while the image is waxy, all but a reel or two has vibrant colors to help make up for it. That said, those problematic reels contain scenes in which the colors have faded toward brown, the flesh tones are dull and the reds border on pink. The third film has no such problem with color, though it, too, appears slightly waxy. The worst-looking film in the lot is Victoria in Dover, which is difficult to describe properly given the number of issues. Presented only in 1.78:1 despite being shot in 1.37:1, the film has obviously been scrubbed of grain via digital noise reduction tools. The image is so soft that detail is completely lost behind a gauze, and the colors look weird throughout, sometimes faded, other times simply ‘off.’ Add to this a fair amount of print damage, and you have a transfer that is poor by any standard. Regardless, most people won’t be buying the set for this particular film, so it can easily be viewed as an extra.

    All four of the films have sound issues. Each film features German soundtracks in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1. People with a strong surround system will naturally prefer the lossless DTS track, though neither is ideal. Film Movement should have supplied the original mono tracks for absolutists, especially considering some of the prioritization issues that affect sound playback on all four films. Now, we don’t mean to suggest that every moment of every film sounds bad; that is far from the case. Most of the time, dialogue is front and center and can be clearly heard. But there are exceptions in every film where background noise or sound effects intrude upon conversations. There is also an occasional issue with distortion when music or sound effects get to loud. Minor hiss here and there, overpowering ambient sound at awkward moments, and an occasional snap, crackle, or pop don’t help. For English-speaking audiences, Film Movement has included English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired. There are no commentaries on any of the films.

    The extras is where this release really earns its money. When the trilogy came to the United States in the early 1960s, it was acquired by Paramount, who instantly realized that each film was too long and too repetitive to release on its own. So the company cut each one down in size and combined all three into a single whole, Farewell My Love, which it then dubbed into English. The dubbing isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great either, and overall, it’s fun to see these films in an alternate 145-minute version that cuts the unnecessary excess. This film is provided on a DVD and is therefore in standard definition. Presented in full frame, the colors are considerably faded and there’s minor print damage compared to the presentations on the Blu-rays. These actually add to the charm.

    “From Romy to Sissi” (19:21) is a vintage featurette from 1956 that features black-and-white, behind-the-scenes footage augmented by color scenes from the film. Part of the footage is narrated by Schneider.

    “Sissi’s Great-grandson at the Movies” (4:21) is an English-language featurette of Peter Altenburg, Sissi’s great-grandson, comparing the historical and filmic figures of Sissi. It also takes a look at silent and early sound adaptations of Sissi’s life. The sound mix is terrible; the narration is often drowned out by dialogue from the film clips being shown, just as the narrative translation of the grandson’s speech is drowned out by the speech itself. In one case, the sound of a film reel spinning drowns out the narration! Unfortunately, there are no subtitles, but it’s still an easy four and a half minutes to get through if one is so inclined.

    Finally, Film Movement includes trailers for The Best Intentions (1992; 2:33), Pelle the Conqueror (1987; 1:41), and Antonia’s Line (1995; 1:48).

    Rounding out the extras is a full-color, 20-page booklet that contains plot synopses and credits for each film, as well as an informative essay by film historian Farran Smith Nehme.

    The Final Word:

    The Sissi films are the perfect example of the law of diminishing returns as it applies to cinematic series. The first film may be wildly unbelievable, but it is at least cute and funny and romantic. The same cannot be said of the rest, as each successive film is less funny, less romantic, and somehow even less believable. Each film is also too long for its own good, so much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone believing there was enough of a story here to stretch out over three two-hour films. That said, the worst film in the lot is not a Sissi film but rather Victoria in Dover, dull and difficult to watch in its sincerity. Yet, Film Movement has packed this set for anyone willing to shell out the relatively low cost. Four films (three of them presented in two different ways) in high definition, one film in standard definition, and extras. The films may not look absolutely superb, but they still look respectable.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2018.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!