I was riveted to The Empress, a Netflix miniseries that is based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. It was history, laced with the flourishes of Bridgerton — the romance, the intrigues, the balls, balloon skirts, the opulence, woven with scenes from the grinding poverty some people of Vienna suffered at the time.
Sisi is Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie of Bavaria (1837–1898), who was Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary from her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1854, when she was only 16, until her death in 1898. Her manner of death was by no means natural, but the series does not delve into that. In fact, it closes on Elisabeth’s peak as an empress, a people’s empress.
The Empress, with her unique nickname, is honored in palaces in Austria and Hungary and even on the island of Corfu in Greece, where she had a summer retreat. I particularly remember accounts of her 18-inch (sometimes reduced to 16-inch) waistline, and the manner of her death. I also remember reading about how she was beloved.
Two prominent Austrian nationals I spoke to recently said the series was pretty accurate, though they thought, like I did, that the actress who played Sisi was miscast. Though she captured Sisi’s reported innocence and lack of affectation, the actress (Devrim Lingnau) was, alas, miscast when it came to the empress’ reported physical attributes.
The German actress is full-figured, whereas the real Sisi was said to have kept her figure reed-slim. She reportedly just “drank” the blood or the juice from rare meat, instead of ingesting the meat itself and exercised fastidiously.
Elisabeth was 5 ft.- 8-in. tall and only 110 pounds for most of her life. The actress who portrayed her in The Empress is, in contrast, only 5-ft. 4-in. tall. Nevertheless, Devrim Lingnau, who is only 24 herself, has the pristine beauty and radiance that Sisi reportedly exuded, which made the emperor fall passionately in love with her instead of his intended match, Sisi’s older sister Helene.
The love story of Franz (Philip Froissant) and Elisabeth had all the elements of a telenovela indeed — from the very start. Going against his mother (Melika Foroutan as Princess Sophie of Bavaria) and protocol, Franz chose the second daughter. That is not a spoiler. That is history. Love won.
Based on historical accounts, Sisi’s full potential was stifled by the pressures of court life, and the controlling ways of a powerful mother-in-law. Domineering MIL vs. beautiful daughter-in-law is the stuff of many teleseryes these days, including Korean telenovelas. Held amidst the opulence of a Baroque Palace, with full ball gowns, tiny waistlines and dripping jewelry, The Empress is Barbara Cartland-with-a twist.
Sisi did not live a charmed and perfect life. And yet she is portrayed with affection by tour guides and online and published sources alike. Which brings me to my takeaway from the movie — the good you do is not interred with your bones. Your reputation will outlast your life; in fact, many lifetimes thereafter.
Hero or foe?
Another series, a world and a century from The Empress, that brings to the fore how reputation can make or break you, is Apple TV’s Five Days at Memorial, top billed by the outstanding Vera Farmiga, based on the 2013 book of the same name by Sheri Fink.
Five Days chronicles with unapologetic realism the wet armpits on scrub suits and the wet armpits of the hurricane-stricken Memorial Hospital (“This can’t be happening in America!” said one character) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Five Days is like a disaster movie but without a Sylvester Stallone or a Bruce Willis to end the nightmare. Although the battle with a furious hurricane ceases, the battle with the forces left at its wake continues without letup. Floodwaters. No electricity to run respirators. Oven-like heat. Food and water sources dwindling.
In the end, the viewer is the juror. Authorities tell the doctors they will be considered trespassers if they don’t leave the hospital. Against some of the personnel’s will, they do.
You see heroes in stained scrubs, surgeons emptying bedpans, frail nurses carrying stretchers laden with patients to safety, sans a working elevator.
“Both book and series depict the Memorial crisis as a series of impossible decisions, made by flawed individuals under unimaginable pressure, and complete systemic breakdown. In this sense, it’s a microcosm of Katrina, which had a death toll of more than 1,800 people,” said The New York Times.
With orders to abandon the hospital, the staff is forced to make challenging decisions. Life or death decisions. Like, who to evacuate first with limited time and rescue vessels available — the weakest, who may slow down the entire process and result in less people being saved; or those that can be transported to the rescue boat or helipad fastest, so more can be saved in the window of time allowed before sundown and the choppers and boats turn back?
In the end, the viewer is the juror. Authorities tell the doctors they will be considered trespassers if they don’t leave the hospital. Against some of the personnel’s will, they do. But not before one of them, Dr. Anna Pou (Farmiga), administers a drug on the patients left behind. She said she did it for their comfort, but she is charged with homicide. Did Dr. Pou truly believe that help would be coming shortly to save the sleeping patients? Or was it mercy killing?
Guilty or not guilty? Watch the eight-part series and be the judge.