Sunday, March 17, 2019

Our March Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman MAXIMILIAN AND MARIE DE BOURGOGNE: A Game of Power and Love -- Medieval thrones on STARZ

Polheim the wise: 
“The Lord loves the simple-minded — 
that’s why there are so many.” 

The slice of European history revealed in this six-episode series feels distant, our being exposed most to British crowns and wars. Thriller and romance, the story of Maximilian and Marie takes us behind the European curtain to Austria, France, and its rich French relative, the Duchy of Burgundy, during the late Middle Ages. It’s a glimpse in the dark as the sun is about to rise on the Renaissance (spurred by printing press output -- the first “new media” in the west).

The action in those parts was just as dicey as Henry’s chewing up wives across the channel. Produced by German and Austrian networks jointly, the series was written by Martin Ambrosch and directed by Andreas Prochaska; it is handsomely crafted in dark medieval hues with Romeo-and-Juliet star-crossings and relationships that feel surprisingly intimate. (Below: director Andreas Prochaska, shown right, and Jannis Niewöhner as Maximilian.)

Maximilian (1459-1519), later called “the last knight” of the medieval era, is at 18 the brash son of Hapsburg Emperor, King Frederick III of Austria, seat of the region called the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ (which Voltaire wrote was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire). Maximilian is disgusted at his father’s passivity in dealing with enemies; he whiles away his nights with Rosina, his sister’s lady-in-waiting, and hunts by day with Polheim, his friend and chamberlain (the only one who will tell him the truth). This is Maximilian’s coming-of-age story.

Emperor Frederick (above) solves politics and foreign aggression not on his horse but in his throne room orchestrating marriages — he has lined up the 40-year-old Hungarian King (his enemy), to marry his 12-year-old daughter and orders his son, Maximilian, to marry the rich Marie of Burgundy. Marie’s father, Charles the Bold, has enlarged Burgundian territory and wealth through acquisition; it is flourishing — a center of cloth, commerce, and sophistication. Marie is ill-disposed to an Austrian match (They stink and eat raw meat, everyone says….) until her father is felled in battle. His death suddenly exposes her to a French law that subjects Burgundy to French rule if no male body sits on the throne. The French king, Louis XI, is pressing his advantage. With promises and bribes, he makes allies of merchants of Ghent* (Belgium), her capitol, who abusively force Marie to agree to marrying Louis’s under-age son, Charles. Below l, young Charles, with famous French actor, Jean-Hugues Anglade, as King Louis (out of focus).

The sly but aging Louis, in between having crippling strokes, is now using guns-for-hire and his own assassins to get rid of Maximilian, clearing the path to control Burgundy (below, Maximilian evading assassins).

Aggressive machinations play out separately against Maximilian and Marie until they meet in episode 4, (and after). In the meantime they each have begun to internalize the urgency of an alliance — a marriage would be the least disagreeable means-to-ends. He needs her wealth to quash his father’s enemies and she needs him to prevent Burgundy’s absorption by France.

Marie has sent Johanna, her lady-in-waiting, to the Austrian court where Johanna puts Maximilian to the sniff test (does he bathe), is he uncouth, is he literate. Determined now to thwart the French, Maximilian comes up with a scheme to rush the marriage from his sickbed — he is recovering from the plague. He and Polheim barely beat King Louis’s henchmen to Burgundy.

For a subplot, Polheim and Johanna fall in star-crossed love, she already having been married at 14 to a gross old man. (The doomed couple below.)

The action does not supplant lovely bits of intimate conversation — the glue that distinguishes this story from the usual. Maximilian and Marie, for instance, are ruled by their heads in landing themselves in the marriage bed, but they are royal, and negotiating sex with a spouse who is a total stranger has its awkwardness. We listen in.

Niewöhner (a young Brad Pitt type) is Maximilian; the accomplished French actress, Christa Théret, is Marie. Théret is familiar as the cherubic, peaches-and-cream model/muse of painter, Renoir, in the beautiful French biopic Renoir (on Amazon Prime). She is too thin here as Marie and dressed unflatteringly, but luminous as the young duchess. The dialogue is filmed in the actors’ own languages, as in Marie speaks to Maximilian in French and he to her in German, though English subtitles blur this oddness. European viewers may be at ease in this multi-lingual world but we, at least, get the message about the varied ethnicity of the region compared to the homogeneity across the English channel. The graphic below shows the changing dimensions of the Holy Roman Empire from 962 — 1806.

The action shifts among the Austrian, French, and Burgundian courts but there’s an English tie here in the person of Margaret of York, widow and third wife of Marie’s father, Charles the Bold. She is sister to Britain’s Edward IV and Richard III, who (history records) befriends her step-daughter and remains a supportive counselor to the young Duchess. (Below, l, Johanna, Marie, and Margaret of York.)

Note that in ‘The White Princess’ series on STARZ,** Margaret of York is a manipulative power behind the throne at the Burgundian court. Whatever the veracity of either version, this German production is more fun than the English soap.

In any event, the marriage between Maximilian and Marie was short but a genuine love match (archive depiction above). Maximilian married twice after her death, also for political alliance, but we are told he was loveless in later life. He was at war most of it, famous for jousting and influencing armor design.

This ‘last knight’ was also an avid patron of the sciences and arts — he was a bridge from the medieval to the modern world, reveling in past glory, making use of Renaissance munificence. But it was through his children with Marie that Hapsburg influence continued and would survive as the Austria-Hungary Empire until 1918. Queen Elizabeth II is among Maximilian’s descendants. But never mind Hapsburg politics and shifting borders, this romance is an entertaining appetizer to the blockbuster of all games of thrones due to resume in April on HBO.

*Note: A New York Times illustrated travel piece on Ghent, Belgium (3/3/19), looks just like the 15th century version See article here.

**Note on STARZ: Former CEO Chris Albrecht (originator of much of HBO’s early successes and STARZ’s current content) has departed. Speculation is that new owner, Lionsgate, may replace some STARZ content by summer. Now would be the time to catch up.

The above post was written by our 
monthly Sunday correspondent, Lee Liberman

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