The cultural hegemony of the Anglo world is such that it even permeates other hegemonic white peoples, case in point, British Monarchies. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that they, ever since Victoria, have become a dull bunch. They have paid their dues to the Gods of Gossip and that’s without having actual political power. But compared to their cousins in Continental Europe, they are nothing but a bunch of petty, misshapen bores. Unfortunately, Anglo cultural hegemony means that their stories dominate film and TV, while we miss out on Royal houses that actually shaped the last two centuries of World History. Mostly for worse, but this is precisely what makes them fascinating characters and stories altogether. Try to find a proper English-language documentary about the Mayerling Affair; now contrast it with the amount of material available on any random cousin of Queen Elizabeth.
As for Empress Sisi of Austria, she might be by far the most widely known royal from Continental Europe … east of France. Star of novels, animated series, and most famously, the movie trilogy starring Romy Schneider. However, these popular depictions have always been told as oversized romantic fantasies, and why wouldn’t they? Sisi was renowned first for her beauty (hard thing to accomplish with all the inbreeding upon inbreeding going on), married in a love-match to a dashing young emperor, heading an Empire that ruled over all of the most picturesque peoples in Europe, inhabiting Baroque and Rococo palaces, much prettier than Buckingham and more elegant than Versailles. But she was also moody, independently-minded, the champion of the Hungarian part of the empire, a lover of poetry and had to face a… complicated mother-in-law. That’s just soap opera catnip.
At the same time, there was a niche for a new retelling of her life and times, one that was more accurate, traded the soap opera fantasy for good melodrama at the very least. One that could explain how she, by pure tragedy and happenstance, was intimately connected with everything that went wrong in European history in the early 20th Century.
I am afraid to tell you that The Empress is not that story. At least not yet, not unless the showrunners decide what story they are trying to tell.
Let’s start with the positive: It has nothing to envy to The Crown, it looks gorgeous and the cinematographers have done a stunning job, working with palatial rooms only lit by candles and oil lamps. I will hold my judgement on the costume design until Karolina Żebrowska or Mina Le do their reviews on historical accuracy. But the acting? I have to admit, whatever you call the approach to acting they teach in German, is certainly some UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage shit, because they are outstanding. In characterizing Sisi, the writers have not been able to decide whether they want a Romanticism-era manic pixie dream girl or a restrained and somber young woman trying to come to terms with her new position, but Devrim Lingnau’s performance somehow brings it all together in a cohesive whole with small expressions and unpolished diction. Another revelation (at least for us non-German speakers) is Melika Foroutan playing Princess Sophie of Bavaria, the domineering mother of Emperor Franz Joseph (Philip Froissant), mastering the art of tearing grown-ass men apart and delivering life-destroying orders with the softest of voices. Foroutan is simply phenomenal doing the double act of a woman that has never allowed herself to be vulnerable while panicking about revolutions inside. The dynamic between these two would alone help center this series.
However, in this season (I’m confident there will be more), the series spread itself thin, focusing on a bunch of pointless and probably inaccurate subplots, including a coup attempt by Archduke Maximilian (Johannes Nussbaum), Franz Joseph’s younger brother, and the secrets of Countess Leontina (Almila Bagriacik), one of Sisi’s ladies in waiting. At the same time, this season focuses only on Sisi’s first year as an empress, which means once again playing the trodden beats of the romantic fairy tale but without getting to the moments that begin to define her biography, like the death of her firstborn daughter, her depressive moods and her visits to Hungary. Even though it’s a breezy watch — only six episodes long — we are left wanting for more. Not in a good way. It’s not easy to get the right pacing in a biopic. The Crown did it great in the first two seasons, but then they skipped most of the best parts of the 60s and 70s and slowed down again into the late 80s and 90s.
Same thing with the storylines involving Franz Joseph’s adapting to the role of Emperor. Once again, we only get a thin patina of the historical context and of who Franz Joseph would become. For now, we are told he is a dashing and idealistic young man weighed down by the burden of keeping the Hapsburg thing together, but we are not shown that much, just scenes of him either acting with assertiveness or moping about Sisi’s temper.
The showrunners want to tell us both stories, the romantic portrait of Sisi and the political drama, but they seem to have tried The Crown’s format, that of a heightened, prestige soap opera via family drama. That works great with the British royals, because they are, indeed, nothing but a heightened, prestige soap opera via family drama. They are not really part of Britain’s political history; they’ve been but its spectators since Victoria.
But that wasn’t the case with the Austrian Empire, not just back in the mid-1800s. The Austrian Emperors were considerably more powerful than their British counterparts at every level, more so after they clamped down on the revolutions of 1848. In fact, the series is set in a decade when they were trying to make absolutism great again. So once again I ask, which story do they want to tell us?
Because I think they could do both, and in the process, demystify Empress Sisi and the whole wretched Empire she was part of. As I mentioned at the beginning, there is so much about our current world that can be understood by becoming acquainted with the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Central Europe in the 19th Century, a story we don’t usually get to see depicted on an international platform, and one that deserves more than just the fairy tale.