Celebrity culture

Vicky Krieps on Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, Romy Schneider, and Margarethe von Trotta’s Bachmann & Frisch

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Vicky Krieps as Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage (a highlight of the 60th New York Film Festival)
Vicky Krieps as Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage (a highlight of the 60th New York Film Festival)

When I met up with Vicky Krieps (who starred opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread) last August she was on holiday in Italy. We spoke about her role in Mathieu Amalric’s Hold Me Tight (Serre Moi Fort), Corsage (Austria’s Oscar entry), and Bachmann & Frisch. Vicky can now be seen this week playing Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, in Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage (screening in the Main Slate of the 60th New York Film Festival, produced by Toni Erdmann director Maren Ade) and in 2023 as Ingeborg Bachmann in her relationship to Max Frisch in Margarethe von Trotta’s Bachmann & Frisch. Ronald Zehrfeld from Frauke Finsterwalder’s Finsterworld, co-written with Christian Kracht, plays Frisch. Finsterwalder has an upcoming Sisi release for 2023, Sisi & I, starring Sandra Hüller with Susanne Wolff as Sisi.

Vicky Krieps with Anne-Katrin Titze on Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of Austria: “I think she was the first victim of celebrity culture.”
Vicky Krieps with Anne-Katrin Titze on Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of Austria: “I think she was the first victim of celebrity culture.”

It is December 1877 and the Empress Elisabeth of Austria is turning 40 years old. Sisi holds her breath, literally and more than once, in a cold bath or while her corset is laced ever more tightly by her maids, she sometimes confuses. Is it Hanni or Fini? Her husband, the Emperor Franz Joseph I (Florian Teichtmeister) knows who is the thinner one and leaves out no opportunity to comment on what he sees as female physical decay in middle age.

Horseback riding, fencing lessons, and trips to get out of stuffy old Vienna promise a little bit of freedom from the excruciating scrutiny by the press who love her and comment ceaselessly on every aspect of her being. The costume design (by Monika Buttinger) is exquisite, as it wraps her body in skins, a collar of feathers, a shell for the body recalling fish scales. Sisi is a wild creature, trapped in the body of an empress, and the clothing, despite the fact of the corset strangling her organs, still feels as though the animal kingdom is closer to her than the humans of the court.

Sisi (Vicky Krieps) being weighed in by Ida Ferenczy (Jeanne Werner), her lady-in-waiting
Sisi (Vicky Krieps) being weighed in by Ida Ferenczy (Jeanne Werner), her lady-in-waiting

“At 40 a person dissolves,” Sisi says and her husband as well as the painter hired for her final official portrait keep shooting arrows at her self-confidence about her weight and complexion. Her visit to hospitals and especially a women’s ward for the insane comfort her and as she distributes neatly wrapped purple parcels of candied violets to patients, she also initiates the installation of modern bathrooms for the institution. The veil on her face is a finely-spun sibling to the netting around the “melancholic” women’s beds. What was the reason a particularly despondent woman was brought to the asylum for treatment, the monarch inquires. “Adultery” is the bombshell response.

What is it about Empress Elisabeth of Austria that makes her so inexhaustibly fascinating? The answers are many. Born a Bavarian duchess from the House of Wittelsbach on Christmas Eve 1837 and assassinated at age 60 in Geneva by an anarchist - her life has been a very full and extraordinary one. Sisi’s role in establishing the K&K dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867, her distinct and often extreme fitness and diet regime, the Rapunzel-like hair, the extensive travels, what happened with her son at Mayerling, the bond with her cousin, the “mad” swan king Ludwig II (whose castle to this day shines from many a Disney logo) - all this has been floating in public consciousness in waves of popularity.

Vicky Krieps as Empress Elisabeth received the Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard Best Performance Award.

From over the summer on a beach in Italy, Vicky Krieps joined me on Zoom for a conversation on her upcoming films.

Lady-in-waiting Marie Festetics (Katharina Lorenz) with Empress Elisabeth (Vicky Krieps)
Lady-in-waiting Marie Festetics (Katharina Lorenz) with Empress Elisabeth (Vicky Krieps)

Anne-Katrin Titze: About Corsage, I suppose you watched the Sissi films as a child?

Vicky Krieps: In my family we didn’t because my mother was a real ’68 woman and she studied art at the Düsseldorf Academy and my dad was also a kind of a hippie. So in my household there was no princess allowed. Now my mom is off the scale when she reads the interviews, she’s like: “I never defended you to be a princess.” And I am like, no, you didn’t, but you taught me that a princess was kind of cheap and that the guy climbing up the tree is the cooler guy! So I wanted to be the one climbing up the trees.

AKT: Your characters are still more the tricksters from fairy tales than the princess ones.

VK: Yes, exactly! But my neighbours, they were very different from us and they were watching the Sissi films every Christmas, they were this kind of family. So I was allowed and discovered it there and I loved being allowed to dream about princesses when I wasn’t allowed to usually. I watched the movies there and they also had the biography of Princess Elisabeth.

And I keep saying 15, I don’t have a clue, it’s between 11 and 17, I read it and I was shocked and I felt like at the end of the book things were dissolving. It felt like crumbling. I couldn’t make sense out of it and I was too young to understand. I felt that something was wrong with the woman or she wasn’t well.

Vicky Krieps on Romy Schneider and Elisabeth: “I allowed myself something for them …”
Vicky Krieps on Romy Schneider and Elisabeth: “I allowed myself something for them …”

Why was she building these fitness machines and why couldn’t someone draw her or why would she be going on all these journeys? It left me puzzled and when I shot this movie with Marie Kreutzer in 2015 [We Used To Be Cool] we said we would like to work together again and I said why isn’t anyone doing a movie about Sisi? No offense against the movies that exist - I love them too.

AKT: You’re right, there is so much more to her. And I think it’s in the Romy Schneider performance. There is so much more that she would have also liked to add, I felt.

VK: I love you for saying that because that’s exactly why I did the movie. The way I did it, when you see it you will maybe think about it, was to take Romy Schneider and Elisabeth by the hand and saying “Jetzt hau’n wir auf die Kacke.”

Now we do what you wanted to do all your life and you couldn’t because you were a woman and you were, not reduced, but at least tied, to your beauty. But you wanted so much more. And I allowed myself something for them, and not to please the audience or to please some film critics. I really did it because I had the feeling they really would have wanted to do this, you know?

AKT: I get it totally. And there again is the theme of trying to seize control in a situation that is very much trying to hold you in and understandably so.

Vicky Krieps: “We are all Sisi now … I wouldn’t say only the influencers are suffering, but probably every person.”
Vicky Krieps: “We are all Sisi now … I wouldn’t say only the influencers are suffering, but probably every person.”

VK: Yes!

AKT: It’s not a shortcut of handing her a gun and making it seem relevant these days. It’s not that at all. I also saw that you worked with Margarethe von Trotta on a film about the great Ingeborg Bachmann [and Max Frisch]. She is another one, easily relatable to Sisi.

VK: Yeah, it’s really interesting when you look at your career because talking to journalists you realise there is a connection somehow. I realised when I was doing it that it is again one of those women, like Sisi or Romy Schneider, who had the same problem. Because she was called “das Mädchen” [the girl] even if she was kind of a star, they reduced her to “das Mädchen.” Even the big [Marcel] Reich-Ranicki, when she [Bachmann] wrote her first novel, he said, well, she should stick to poems. But that was only because he couldn’t cope with her being an actual writer, which she was.

I revisited her work and it’s political, it’s philosophical, psychological, it’s very very deep and very intelligent. I think she suffered from the same thing and died of the same thing. She definitely died of being alone, taking too many pills, feeling alone as a woman when she could have shared it with a man, but the men couldn’t take her. She was free, she was like “I’m not going to be your little housewife, I want to live my life and maybe have other lovers but you are my man.” Like Max Frisch, you know. She really loved this man and wanted him to be her man and she talks of the pact.

New York Film Festival 60 at Lincoln Center
New York Film Festival 60 at Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Love as a pact two people take. And you don’t break the pact. You can go and sleep with other people but you don’t break the trust you built as a couple. All the men she met, they would always break the trust. And I think they broke her actually. And I’m not the kind of feminist always screaming about it. I’m actually quiet about it, I just know what I know. But it’s incredible to myself doing the movie, realising all these women suffered of the same thing actually.

AKT: And realising it from your roles you also realise how much bigger the scale of it is. You just mentioned Marcel Reich-Ranicki. I was working as a ZDF intern at the Literary Quartet many years ago. I will never forget the moment Marcel Reich-Ranicki cornered me in an empty corridor, hovering, saying “I love young interns!”

VK: Oh my god! That’s exactly it!

AKT: And he said, “You should come to the bar with us after the Literary Quartet.” Everything I admired about the Literary Quartet collapsed on me at that moment. I didn’t go to the bar.

VK [pushing her sun hat over her face]: You were right! As an actress you also have the same thing all the time. As you say, it’s much bigger. I maybe only reach the tip of the iceberg. But every occasion I have to talk about the subject, or even to …

AKT: … incarnate it!

VK: Yes, I take every chance I get to do so quietly. To say that actually it’s not about the drama, it’s not about the sensation, it’s about human beings. It’s very simple, I’m a woman, I’m a man, I don’t care, I’m a human and it’s not okay if we don’t take someone fully as the whole person they are. Reduce them to their femininity or something else. But how women have been for centuries reduced to this and now we really have to fight with things we don’t really know we are fighting against because they are already internal because of hundreds of years of training.

AKT: Precisely. When you are going out, you are constantly photographed and questioned and commented on about what is wrong here or there. It’s the Sisi phenomenon complete with social media.

Bachmann & Frisch director Margarethe von Trotta with The Forest Maker director Volker Schlöndorff
Bachmann & Frisch director Margarethe von Trotta with The Forest Maker director Volker Schlöndorff Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

VK: Now it’s taking it to a graver level. We are all Sisi now. You could say the influencers, but actually quite honestly I wouldn’t say only the influencers are suffering, but probably every person. Because it’s not natural or normal that you know your face that well. That you know who likes your face or doesn’t like your face. Or how many people like this side of your face or that side of your face. That’s what Sisi fell victim to. And many others. Now it’s like a virus.

AKT: I totally agree.

VK: It’s a disease of the whole society actually.

AKT: The awareness is still not completely there. And it’s not spoken about enough.

VK: No, and that’s why I did the movie. That’s what I said to Marie, it’s interesting to make a movie about her. Even now that the movie is out, I realise how right I was. That was my instinct. I think she was the first victim of celebrity culture. This I found interesting already five years ago. The movie is out and I sadly realise how right I was, you know. It’s shocking.

Corsage’s remaining screenings at the New York Film Festival are today, October 2 at 6:00pm, and Wednesday, October 5 at 3:00pm. Marie Kreutzer and Vicky Krieps are expected to do a Q&A on October 2.

Read what Vicky Krieps had to say on Hold Me Tight (Serre Moi Fort), Mathieu Amalric, and being between dream and reality.

The 2022 New York Film Festival runs through October 16.

Corsage will open in cinemas in the US on Friday, December 23 and on December 30 in the UK.

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