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#thatgirl: Why Germans love Empress 'Sisi'

Christine Lehnen
September 10, 2023

During her lifetime Empress Elisabeth of Austria was considered the most beautiful woman in Europe. After she was stabbed and died 125 years ago, she became a legend.

A young woman looks into the camera, with dark eyes and dark hair, a black and white photograph
Empress Elisabeth of Austria at 28 years, in the year 1865Image: picture-alliance / akg-images

In 1898, Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary stayed incognito on Lake Geneva to escape the court ceremonies in Vienna for a few days. A trip on a paddle steamer was planned for September 10.

Accompanied by her lady-in-waiting, the empress left the Hotel Beau Rivage, located directly on the shore of the lake. She met her killer on the lake promenade. He bumped into her, stabbing her with a sharpened needle file, and she fell. A coachman helped her up. "It's nothing," she said. "We have to hurry or we'll miss the boat."

She continued walking as if nothing had happened and boarded the ship, but collapsed shortly after it took off. She was taken back to the hotel, where, according to the death certificate, she died at 2:40 p.m. She was 60 years old.

It was the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni who, without being noticed, had stabbed the Empress in the heart. He hated the nobility. He originally wanted to kill the Italian King Umberto I, but could not afford the trip to Italy. He then set his sights on the French nobleman Henri Philippe Marie d'Orleans, but he canceled his trip to Geneva at short notice. So finally Sissi became his victim.

The stabbing of the empress ended the life of an extraordinary woman who was known not only for her beauty, but also for her independent personality and humanitarian activities. Her death marked the end of an era and left a gap in the history of the Habsburg Empire.

Sisi, a legend to this day

Born 185 years ago on December 24, 1837, Empress Elisabeth, known popularly as "Sisi," ruled over Austria-Hungary at the side of her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph.

Famed for her beauty, Elisabeth was long considered the most attractive woman in Europe.

No wonder that Franz-Joseph wanted to marry the Bavarian princess. Historians agree that it was a love match — something quite unusual at the time.

Several films have been made about the famous royal couple before Netflix added "The Empress" to the list. 

The most famous adaptation to date was made in 1950s, when actress Romy Schneider starred as "Sissi" in a trilogy of films about the empress which have since then become Christmas classics, broadcast every year and watched by hundreds of thousands of households in Germany.

While Netflix's "The Empress" is based on a romance novel series and focuses on the young empress's love life, other adaptations look at Elisabeth of Austria as a modern woman.

For example, the Oscar-nominated film "Corsage" (2022), by Austrian director Marie Kreutzer, deals with how difficult it must have been for Elisabeth to submit to life at the imperial court, which allowed her little freedom or political influence. Sisi came to power only through her beauty, so she made it her mission to remain beautiful.

Elisabeth as #thatgirl

Every day she had her hair combed for two hours and underwent a rigorous fitness routine. As early as the 19th century, Elisabeth of Austria worked out every day to preserve her youth, beauty and status for as long as possible. 

Her fitness and beauty program fits the zeitgeist, says novelist Karen Duve, who published her book "Sisi," about the empress and her adventures in England and Ireland this year.

The actress Vicky Krieps as "Sisi" holding a cigarette
Vicky Krieps won a European Film Award as Best Actress for her portrayal of SisiImage: Robert Brandstätter/Alamode Film/epd

"Sisi was already doing things 150 years ago that are considered normal today," Duve explains. "For example, keeping fit with weight lifting, doing everything to preserve her own beauty for as long as possible, even putting her own health at risk to uphold the illusion of eternal youth."

The empress's consistent self-optimization may be hitting a nerve with modern audiences, the novelist speculates, who has written numerous prize-winning and bestselling works of historical and contemporary German literature.

Karen Duve wearing glasses and a white shirt under a black dinner jacket
Karen Duve wanted to write a novel about horses when she stumbled upon SisiImage: Carsten Koall/dpa/picture alliance

Now, Sisi even has her own trending hashtag: #thatgirl. Under this hashtag, beautiful, young, healthy, athletic women post videos on social media, presenting their morning, fitness, eating or sleeping routines. The message of #thatgirl: You only need to follow these routines to be as beautiful, young, healthy, athletic and happy as these women...

The unhappy empress

Unfortunately, the historical Elisabeth was not happy at the Habsburg court, according to Karen Duve, who studied historical documents, diaries, letters and contemporary accounts in multiple languages surrounding the empress's life as part of her research. She focused on Elisabeth at 40, while movie and TV adaptations usually look at a much younger Sisi.

"There is also this other Sisi, the older one, who is a bit disappointed with her husband and her life," she tells DW. "She's probably not the only woman in history to be disappointed by her husband after a few years, and who is perhaps rather more clever than him, and who doesn't feel comfortable in the inferior role they've been assigned. And Sisi is someone who broke out of that role."

She did so by becoming an excellent horsewoman and huntress. To this day, she is known in Britain and Ireland not as a romantic princess but a formidable rider who participated in dangerous hunts with the British nobility. Shirking her court duties as much as she could, Elisabeth spent her time doing what she loved, and what made her happy: horseriding, exercise and nature.

Book cover: "Sisi" by Karen Duve
In 'Sisi,' Duve combines humour with an unflattering gaze at the Habsburg monarchyImage: Galiani Berlin

A life filled with mindfulness, as early as 1870. A visit to Queen Victoria in London seemed a nuisance to her; she stayed only for half an hour, refusing even to eat lunch with the powerful British monarch.

The fairy-tale empress

In this respect, Empress Elisabeth of Austria was already a very modern woman, who struggled with the conventions and restrictions imposed on her at court, tried to live an independent, active life, and find happiness and meaning.

Sometimes she succeeded, sometimes she didn't. She is considered by many to be an early example of female emancipation, even if it could only be realized by one of the most powerful women in Europe.

Films such as Marie Kreutzer's "Corsage" and Karen Duve's novel "Sisi" deal with the darker, more modern side of the beloved Austrian empress.

The film with Romy Schneider and the Netflix series, on the other hand, are dedicated to the empress from the fairy tale, telling her life as a love story with plenty of fun, erotic and romantic adventures among young, rich and beautiful people. 

A scene from "The Empress," out on Netflix
Devrim Lingnau as Sisi and Philip Froissan as Franz-Joseph in Netflix's 'The Empress'Image: picture alliance/dpa/Netflix

Sisi's is a story straight out of a fairy tale, confirms Karen Duve. An emperor marries a girl for love, she rides to church in a golden carriage, and the imperial palace in Vienna becomes her home.

"There's certainly something archetypal in it, especially for all of us in the German-speaking world who grew up on a diet of fairy tales," Duve says. "And the story of Sisi, that's the promise that the fairy tale can actually come true."

A fairy tale that still fascinates people 125 years after Elisabeth's death.

This article was first published on December 24, 2022. The account of how she died 125 years ago were added in this republished version.

Edited by: Manasi Gopalakrishnan