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Even though the unforgettable Romy Schneider became internationally famous thanks to the trilogy dedicated to Princess Sissi, directed by Ernst Marischka, she tried hard during her short life to make people stop constantly identifying her with Elisabeth of Austria.

The sad princess

One of the best-known – and heartbreakingly beautiful – faces of French cinema in the 1960s/1970s/1980s, Romy Schneider – born in Vienna the 23rd of September 1938 – tried hard during her short life to disown her homeland or, better still, the feature films she made there, which, however, made her an international star. Although, therefore, the actress – Austrian on her father’s side, German on her mother’s side, but French by adoption – thanks to her unforgettable face as Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the famous trilogy that began in 1955 with the feature film Sissi, directed by Ernst Marischka, achieved such notoriety that she became a true symbol of a golden era for Austrian cinema, throughout her brilliant career, she has always suffered from being remembered mainly due to the aforementioned works.

It all began, therefore, already before 1955, and specifically in 1953, when the young girl (born Rosemarie Magdalena Albach-Retty) – under the supervision of her mother Magda Schneider, also an actress – took part in the film When the white Lilacs bloom again, directed by the German Hans Deppe, starring her own mother. A year was to pass, however, until Ernst Marischka noticed her, to the point of casting her first for The Story of Vickie (1954) and later for the aforementioned trilogy dedicated to Princess Sissi.

A brilliant beginning, then, for a Romy Schneider destined to win the hearts of audiences from her very first performances. A beginning wisely – and constantly – managed by her mother Magda, who, always convinced that she was the only one able to decide what was best for her daughter (in spite of her father, Wolf Albach-Retty, also an actor), in her behaviour as mother hen probably irreparably marked her daughter’s life. Even at the moment when the latter left Austria for good, choosing France as her adopted home.

This detachment, this cutting of the umbilical cord, occurred, therefore, when Magda herself gave her daughter permission to take part in Christine, directed in 1958 by Pierre Gaspard-Huit. It was on this occasion, therefore, that Romy met Alain Delon – co-star of the film – with whom she soon began a tormented love affair, immediately moving to Paris.

Nothing, however, could make the Ville Lumière to finally make her happy. Indeed, despite a brilliant career, despite working with directors such as Luchino Visconti (with whom she took part in films such as Boccaccio ’70 – made in 1961 – and Ludwig – made in 1972 and in which she again played the role of Elisabeth of Austria, in a more realistic and far less fictionalised portrait than that of Marischka), Orson Welles (in The Trial, 1962) or Jacques Deray (her performance, together with Alain Delon, in The Swimming Pool, 1969, is very famous), the actress’s life has been constantly punctuated by a series of misfortunes.

It all started, probably, in 1964, the year Romy Schneider split up with Delon. According to numerous sources, the actress experienced a long period of depression after the break-up, from which she never fully recovered. Not even after the birth, in 1966, of her son David, born of her marriage to the German actor Harry Mayen, or of her daughter Sara Magdalena, born in 1977 of her marriage to Daniel Biasini, who also later became an actress. The constant abuse of alcohol and antidepressants at the same time would have done their part.

And so the Romy Schneider known and loved by all was immediately nicknamed ‘the sad princess’. Yes, the sad princess. Just like the Sissi she had played several years earlier. The role of the Empress of Austria, therefore, despite her important roles and numerous international successes, seemed to be, in fact, her alter ego.

Many will, in the following years, ask her for more explanations about her participation in the successful trilogy of Marischka. Just as many, however, would receive rude or, in any case, highly angry answers. The only one to fully understand her unease, in fact, seemed to be actor Karlheinz Böhm, who played the role of Emperor Franz Joseph in Marischka’s films and who remained Schneider’s friend throughout her life. Only to him, therefore, would the actress have confided that she strongly opposed the making of a fourth film of the saga, which would probably only have increased the strong sense of claustrophobia that had been afflicting her for a long time.

A worldwide success therefore helped nothing, as did the three César Prizes she won (the first in 1975 for Andrzej Zulawski’s That Most Important Thing: Love, the second in 1979 for Claude Sautet’s A Simple Story and, finally, the third, posthumously, in 2008). The constant fear of not being able to make it on her own – having always been connected to someone supposedly stronger than her, now her mother Magda Schneider, now her beloved Alain Delon – drove her to gradually damage her health. Her final downfall thus began in 1981, the year in which the actress first underwent surgery for a benign kidney tumour and in which she subsequently experienced the greatest tragedy of her life: the death of her son David, who died in an accident while climbing over the gate of his grandparents’ house. From this misfortune, Romy Schneider never recovered. So it was on the night of the 29th May 1982 that the actress died, killed by a heart attack (probably caused by an abuse of barbiturates), shortly after the release of her last film: The Passerby, directed by Jacques Rouffio. Her smiling face, therefore, is shown to us for the last time by Robert Lebeck’s photographs, taken at the Quiberon spa, where the actress had decided to take a few days off from the shooting of Rouffio’s film. Where the actress probably lived her last happy days before the great tragedy, trying once again to forget that she had been Princess Sissi.

Info: the page of Romy Schneider on iMDb