If the character of Archduchess Sophie, young Sissi/Romy Schneider’s worst nightmare, has become so legendary and unforgettable, it is mainly due to excellent Vilma Degischer, who thanks (also) to her icy and apparently severe appearance proved to be the right person to play Emperor Franz Joseph’s mother.
Many will remember the austere Archduchess Sophie, mother of Emperor Franz Joseph and mother-in-law of Empress Elisabeth in the now cult films Sissi (1955), Sissi, the Young Empress (1956) and Sissi – Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), all directed by Ernst Marischka. If, therefore, the character of Archduchess Sophie, the young Sissi/Romy Schneider‘s worst nightmare, has become so legendary and unforgettable, it is mainly thanks to excellent Vilma Degischer, who thanks (also) to her icy and apparently stern appearance proved to be the right person to play the Emperor’s mother. But who was, in fact, Vilma Degischer?
Born in Vienna on November 17, 1911 and the daughter of a court councillor, young Vilma Degischer initially wanted to become a dancer. She therefore began studying expressive dance with teachers Grete Gross, Gertrude Bodenwieser and Ellinor Tordis. If, however, the dance world was not to play a central role in her life, her training undoubtedly helped to give her the grace and elegance typical of the noblewomen of past centuries that would become her hallmarks in both film and theatre.
Alongside her dance studies, Vilma Degischer began to study acting at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna, and her theatre debut took place during her studies. It was during these years, in fact, that the actress first performed on stage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt himself and which took place at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Here she met and fell in love with her colleague Hermann Thimig, whom she married in 1939 and by whom she had two daughters: Hedwig and Johanna, who also became an actress.
During her long and prolific career, Vilma Degischer acted mainly in theatre in Vienna, being a member of the ensemble of the Theater in der Josefstadt until her death, working for a short time also at the Volkstheater, playing more than four hundred roles and performing in plays by authors such as Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Grillparzer, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Henrik Ibsen and Luigi Pirandello. Her innate elegance, her perfect eloquence and her predilection for kammerspiel made her the perfect interpreter for roles of noblewomen, but also of tormented protagonists, whose personal drama was the focus of the play itself.
Although the actress worked relatively little in film, her big screen debut came in 1931, when she took part in the feature film The Great Love, the only film directed by her countryman Otto Preminger in Austria. After a series of lesser-known films – including The other Life (Rudolf Steinbock, 1948) and Der Komödiant von Wien (Karl Paryla, 1954) – director Ernst Marischka finally chose her for his trilogy dedicated to Elisabeth of Bavaria, starring also Romy Schneider and Karlheinz Böhm. These feature films made her world-famous.
The film world, however, did not seem to interest her much. And, in fact, there were not many feature films in which she took part following the Marischka trilogy. It was with Ernst Marishka, however, that she worked again in 1958 in Embezzled Heaven, while with Romy Schneider, who had meanwhile become an international star, she took part in Otto Preminger’s masterpiece The Cardinal in 1963. After dubbing the Mother Superior (played by Peggy Wood) in The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) for the German version, her last significant works include Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Géza von Radványi, 1965) and The Strauss Dynasty, made in 1991 by Marvin J. Chomsky and focusing on the history of the famous family of composers.
Her true love, then, was theatre. And at the legendary Theater in der Josefstadt – located in Vienna’s 8th district – she remained for the rest of her life, until her death at the age of eighty on May 3, 1992 in Baden. Even today, then, Vilma Degischer is still remembered by all with affection and reverence. Her innate talent, her class and her unmistakable blue eyes contributed to writing an important chapter in Austrian theatre and film history.