Saturday, November 11, 2017

Bring back the Monarchy! Blu-ray debut for THE SISSI COLLECTION, Ernst Marischka's classic trilogy starring Romy Schneider as Princess Elisabeth of Austria

"Dated" does not begin to describe the look, dialog and attitude to film, history, royalty, family and just about else else on display in the THE SISSI COLLECTION, the five-disc set of Blu-ray transfers of the series of films that were international hits back in the 1950s and turned a certain 17-year-old actresses named Romy Schneider into an worldwide movie star. And yet it is that very dated quality, utterly unapologetic and in-your-face, that makes this collection almost shockingly enjoyable. These of-their-time blockbusters out-Hollywood even Hollywood's attempts at this sort of thing, combining the lavish with the charming in such perfect measure that unsuspecting viewers are likely to find themselves as surprised as they are enrapt.

The work of a writer/director named Ernst Marischka (shown at right), of whom TrustMovies had never heard, the films bespeak that ever-popular "timeless" and fake-historical kind of movie-making (Gone With the Wind is another such) that thrills audiences while sending critics round the bend. Marischka wrote some 96 works and directed 34 films, but none, I suspect, matched the success of these Sissis. And we're talking about a time in which no one had yet imagined CGI effects, so the crowd scenes here use actual crowds, while the pomp and circumstance on view offers so much glitter and gilt that any guilt you might be feeling simply melts away.

From the first scene in the first of the films, as we watch "royalty" in action, so charming, kind and lovable are these characters you'll wonder how and why the monarchy was ever allowed to disappear. SISSI, made in 1955, details Princess Elisabeth's coincidental meeting with Emperor Franz Joseph, played by Karlheinz Böhm, above and below, right (aka Carl Boehm: remember Peeping Tom?), their falling in love and eventual marriage. Any resemblance to actual characters is accidental, of course, but, boy, is the movie sweet, old-fashioned fun.

SISSI: THE YOUNG EMPRESS (1956) follows Sissi's travails as she tries to outmaneuver her dragon-lady of a mother-in-law while helping the country of Hungary turn its fealty toward Austria. She accomplishes both and lots more, while giving birth and holding the marriage together by, of course, remaining true to herself and her ideals.

In SISSI: THE FATEFUL YEARS (1957) , that nasty mom-in-law (Vilma Degischer, above) is still making trouble for poor Sissi, whose health deteriorates some. Still, she manages to do for Austria's Italian provinces pretty much what she did for Hungary, winning hearts, minds and probably other bodily parts, as well. (All three of the Sissi films contain a smattering of international/historical-politics-for-dummies to pass minimum muster.)

The collection also includes two more films: VICTORIA IN DOVER (1954) -- a German version of the Victoria and Albert love story, also starring Ms Schneider and filmed by Marischka -- and FOREVER MY LOVE (1962), a version of the trilogy in which the roughly five-and-one-half hours that make up the three films have been condensed into two-and-one-half and then dubbed into English. I have watched neither of these two "bonus" discs, but the three that make up the Sissi Collection are more than worth their viewing time.

As enchanted as viewers may be by this series, some older ones may find themselves musing on the great success of the trilogy, which came at a time when Germany was still recovering from its recent Nazi past and needed something to feel good about. So turning an Austrian princess into a heroine of the people was not a bad idea, and Ms Schneider could not have been a more delectable nor charming choice for the role. It must have nice to be able to forget the Holocaust, even briefly, by embracing an earlier period pre-Hitler in which everything on view appears quite heavily Christian. And then -- such luck! -- to have the trilogy embraced by international audiences.

Performances all-round are all you could want -- charming, reassuring, expected -- given the time period in which the films were made. The Blu-ray transfers are quite wonderful, as well. Capturing amazing detail in both close-up and the vast scenes of spectacle, the transfer occasionally offers up a little surprise -- such as Ms Schneider raising her arms to wave to her subjects and in the process revealing some armpit hair (European women of the 1950s had not yet collectively embraced the American habit of shaving).

In all The Sissi Collection proves a surprise treat with luscious, endlessly entertaining visuals. From Film Movement Classics and running a total of 600 minutes(!), the collection features the films in both their original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and in eye-popping 16:9 widescreen (which I watched on our widescreen TV and found pleasing indeed. Bonus features include a 20-page booklet that offers a smart and engaging essay on the films by Farran Smith Nehme. Both the Blu-ray and the DVD editions hit the street this coming Tuesday, November 14 -- for purchase and (I hope) rental.

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