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by Frauke Finsterwalder

grade: 7

Meticulously detailed and quite original in its costumes, with an excellent cast and locations that almost seem to belong to enchanted dimensions, Frauke Finsterwalder’s Sisi & I is definitely the most “feminist” version of all the feature films dedicated to Elisabeth of Austria. At the Berlinale 2023.

Elisabeth’s best friend

As we all know, on September 10, 1898, Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Hungary was murdered by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni in Geneva. With her was Countess Irma Sztáray, who immediately came to her aid as soon as she collapsed to the ground. Starting precisely from the character of Irma Sztáray, therefore, German director Frauke Finsterwalder imagined her own version of the empress’s story. Thus originated the feature film Sisi & I, premiered at the Berlinale 2023 in the Panorama section.

Sisi & I, therefore, is the latest in a series of feature films dedicated to Elisabeth of Austria. After the worldwide success of the trilogy by Ernst Marischka that began in 1955 with Sissi (and with an unforgettable Romy Schneider in the title role), Corsage, directed by Marie Kreutzer in 2022 and even entered the short list for the Oscars 2023, has recently been very successful, just to give a few examples. Compared to the Marischka films – in which we were presented with a very romanticised and fictionalised version of the facts – in these recent feature films, every effort has been made to “free” the figure of the empress from all the clichés that have been attributed to her since, precisely, the 1950s.

If, therefore, in Corsage we saw a free and rebellious Elisabeth of Austria (played by Vicky Krieps) dancing free, taking on heroin and pretending to faint to avoid taking part in official events, in Sisi & I Frauke Finsterwalder went even further, creating a kind of ideal non-place (at the beginning of the film, Corfu), in which the Empress lives surrounded only by women (with the exception of a single servant – played by Stefan Kurt – and the homosexual Archduke Louis Victor of Austria – an always excellent Georg Friedrich) and in which, precisely, men are depicted as despicable figures.

Everything, therefore, is shown to us from the point of view of Countess Irma Sztáray (played by a very good Sandra Hüller). After being chosen as lady-in-waiting to the Empress (who for the occasion has the face of Susanne Wolff), she will be subjected almost to “torture”, as, before meeting Elisabeth, she will be put on a pedestal, interrogated and will even have to demonstrate her skill in gymnastics. Irma and Elisabeth are very different, yet a deep friendship is immediately established between them. At least when Elisabeth allows Irma to get close to her. This idyllic situation, however, seems to end when the Empress has to return to Vienna at the request of her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph (Markus Schleinzer).

Meticulously detailed and quite original in its costumes (by Tanja Hausner), with an excellent cast and locations that almost seem to belong to enchanted dimensions, Sisi & I is definitely the most “feminist” version of all the feature films dedicated to Elisabeth of Austria, “guilty” only of being made only a few months after Kreutzer’s film. Runs through meadows, dives off a cliff, crazy laughs after trying hashish, tattoos and séances give us a completely unconventional portrait of the Empress and see in her lady-in-waiting a worthy protagonist, made even more remarkable by Hüller’s charisma. Frauke Finsterwalder was not afraid to dare. Not even when she made us hint off-screen at a sexual assault by the emperor on his wife. And not even when we saw the man sitting in the toilet (and just think that in 1964, many were scandalised by the fact that in Michael Kehlmann’s Radetzkymasch Franz Joseph was shown in his nightgown). Her Elizabeth is definitely surprising, audacious, quite unconventional. And who knows how long she will be talked about.

Original title: Sisi & Ich
Directed by: Frauke Finsterwalder
Country/year: Germany, Switzerland, Austria / 2023
Running time: 132’
Genre: biographical, drama, historical
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Susanne Wolff, Georg Friedrich, Stefan Kurt, Sophie Hutter, Maresi Riegner, Johanna Wokalek, Sibylle Canonica, Angela Winkler, Markus Schleinzer, Anthony Calf, Tom Rhys Harries, Ravi Aujla, Paul Portelli, Audrey Marie Bartolo, William Erazo Fernández, Annette Badland, Ella Rumpf
Screenplay: Frauke Finsterwalder, Christian Kracht
Cinematography: Thomas W. Kiennast
Produced by: Walker+Worm Film, Dor Film, C-Films, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Südwestrundfunk, Arte, SRF

Info: the page of Sisi & I on the website of the Berlinale; the page of Sisi & I on iMDb