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Sissi Collection, The
The best of the three Sissi movies is the first, with the trio offering a traditional arc of diminishing returns. When we first meet Sissi, she is at home with her family in Bavaria, including her mother, Duchess Ludovika (Magda Schneider -- Romy's real mother) and Duke Max (Gustav Knuth), and her beautiful sister Nene (Uta Franz). Sissi, an animal lover, has everything she could possibly want: three giant dogs, a massive cage full of exotic birds, and even a baby deer, which lives in a tiny playpen outside her house and charmingly roughhouses with the dogs (you can practically imagine an animated butterfly landing on her finger with complete sincerity). She is gorgeous, like her mother, but also takes to her father's outdoorsy qualities (my favorite detail: she simultaneously loves hunting but never, ever kills an animal, enthusiastically going on hunting trips only to scare the potential targets away at the last minute, with nary a complaint from her companions).
Unbeknownst to both Sissi and her father, Duchess Ludovika and her sister, Archduchess Sophie (Vilma Degischer) have hatched a plan to get Sophie's son, Franz Joseph I (Karlheinz Bohm), the future emperor, to marry Nene. In order to avoid arousing Max's suspicions, Ludovika invites Sissi along for their trip to meet Franz, in the town of Bad Ischl. Franz isn't particularly thrilled by the idea of his mother arranging a wife for him, but more or less agrees to go along with it, only to run into Sissi before the Duchess and Archduchess can get he and Nene together. Franz is, of course, charmed by Sissi, and who wouldn't be: these movies undoubtedly exist to showcase Schneider, who is deeply charismatic and utterly believable as the immeasurably sincere and earnest Sissi. There's a palpable, infectious quality to her glowing eyes and broad smile that leaps off the screen and into the viewer's heart. It also doesn't hurt that she and Bohm also have excellent chemistry from the first second they lay eyes on each other.
Conflict in the Sissi movies is more of a formality than anything; in the first movie, the issue is not whether or not Sissi and Franz love each other (there is no doubt), but the fact that Sissi is too kind to want to hurt her sister Nene. There is also Archduchess Sophie, who would prefer the mannered and more Empress-like Nene. The writing of these movies, by Ernst Marischka (who also directed of all three films) is impressively forward-thinking, seemingly anticipating most of the audience's objections to the twists and turns in Sissi and Franz's courtship, and then working them into the story. In this sense, the films have also aged pretty well, holding up under the scrutiny of modern political correctness...save for the historical details that Franz and Sissi are first cousins, and Sissi was 16 years old when she got married. Nonetheless, the resolution of Sissi's issues is a given, not just in the sense that the film needs to resolve the issue in order to have a happy ending, but more that Sissi's loving, open-hearted nature simply demands that everything works out (especially given her problem is selfless).
The three Sissi films, although they cover a significant span of time, were produced quickly enough that they feel less like a movie franchise and more like a lengthy television show. The second film, Sissi: The Young Empress, picks up almost immediately after the first one left off and has what feels like a surprising number of recurring jokes continued from or references to the original. In this chapter, Sissi again butts heads with Archduchess Sophie over the proper way to raise Sissi's infant child, and becomes wrapped up in her young husband's political career when it comes to making peace between Hungary and Austria. As one expects from a sequel, this one offers more spectacle and glamour (not just the sets and the dresses, but also photography of the landscapes when Sissi and Franz decide to sneak away on an impromptu vacation), and once again, the conflicts charmingly reinforce Sissi's innate goodness, and practically resolve themselves entirely as a result.
There are two outliers in the The Sissi collection, for different reasons. The first is the final Sissi film, Sissi: The Fateful Years of the Empress, which takes a significantly darker turn than the other films in the series. Although Sissi and Franz never sincerely question their loyalty for one another, Archduchess Sophie reports to Franz that Count Andrassy of Austria is in love with Sissi. Although Sissi is, of course, utterly faithful to Franz, Andrassy's unwanted devotion to Sissi is authentic, casting a dark cloud over Sissi's love of the country and her time there away from Franz. Upon returning to Vienna, she is also struck down by tuberculosis, and spends the bulk of the movie in recovery, far away from Franz. It's the only film in Marischka's trilogy that comes off as oddly dour and depressing, withholding the elemental romance and fantasy that the other two films thrive on.
The other outlier is the fourth film in the set, Victoria in Dover, which was made by Marischka and Schneider the year before the first Sissi movie. Much like the Sissi movies, Schneider embodies a real figure of royalty, and after some surprisingly dramatic material about the responsibility of being a queen and Victoria's struggle with the pressures of it, the film abruptly turns into a (somewhat less effective) version of the romantic fantasy that the Sissi films would be. Schneider is again enjoyable, and the pieces of what she and Marischka would tap into with their trilogy are there, but there is less chemistry between Schneider and Albert (Adrian Hoven), the German prince that she meets while they're both posing as commoners as an escape from their highly-scrutinized lives.
Those with awareness of the real Empress Elisabeth will know that her life was not nearly as charming as presented in the films, even the darker third chapter -- she would eventually lose two children and was ultimately stabbed to death by an assassin. Yet, Marischka's style creates a comfort that seems to absolve the films of their need to be accurate, from Sissi's supernatural sweetness to Franz's utter devotion to her, from Archduchess Sophie's delightful crank routine to the bumbling antics of Josef Meinrad as Bockl, a royal guard who recurs in all three films as comic relief. Perhaps if Marischka had been able to make his planned fourth Sissi film, the third would feel like part of a larger picture as well, but Schneider refused. The charm of the films lies in their frivolousness, which is not a criticism or complaint -- they indulge the viewer in a certain type of winsome fantasy, pure and unfettered by a need to be self-serious or less than ornately perfect.
Film Movement presents The Sissi Collection with pretty basic art, just an isolated image of Romy Schneider in front of a red backdrop. The five-disc set comes in a Vortex Blu-ray case, and there is a booklet inside the case featuring an essay by Farran Smith Nehme, as well as a leaflet advertising other Film Movement releases. One quibble --
the booklet does not actually fit inside the tabs inside the case, which is frustrating; instead, it must be placed between the flap trays in order for the case to close.
The Video and Audio
The three Sissi films that are the main attraction are presented in two formats: 1080p AVC presentations of the original 1.33:1 format and new reframed 1.78:1 versions, both sourced from a new 2K restoration of the films. Flicking back and forth between the options after watching the original Sissi, I had trouble shaking the feeling that some additional digital noise reduction had been applied to the original 1.33:1 presentation of the film. Of course, zooming into a 1.33:1 film in order to create a 1.78:1 transfer is inevitably going to boost the grain, but there are other signs of noise reduction throughout both transfers -- the suspiciously smooth opening credits, a general lack of fine detail in hair and skin, and so on. Purists (a group I'd count myself among) will no doubt dislike the idea of watching cropped versions, but viewing the second film in the reformatted aspect ratio at least proves the framing does not hamper the viewing experience. The sense of noise reduction gets worse as the series progresses; third Sissi film appears unnaturally smooth even looking at the 1.78:1 version.
The Sissi movies utilized Agfacolor rather than Technicolor, and as such, there is a certain pastiness to skin tones and an overall lightness to the look of the film. However, this is not to say that the films don't have a visually striking and vibrant appearance overall, especially Schneider's red hair. Although fine detail is generally limited, these are still strong and agreeably crisp restorations that capture the beautiful costumes and sets with impressive clarity.
The set also includes Victoria in Dover, which is only offered in a reframed 1.78:1 ratio, and looks the worst of the feature presentations, given it does not seem to have received the same 2K restoration treatment as the other films, with noticeable print damage and the most extreme noise reduction of all. Colors appear further muted as well.
Sound for all four films is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, which are a mixed bag. Ambient sound effects from the background are overly intrusive, and dialogue is often a bit fuzzy. At one point during the third Sissi film, I detected a distinct hum or ringing during a supposedly silent scene. It is a shame that Film Movement did not see fit to include the original mono audio tracks in addition to the remixes, especially given the set contains useless standard definition 5.1 mixes for the three Sissi films as well. English subtitles are, of course, provided.
Three extra features are included on the fifth bonus disc, which is a regular DVD. The most substantial one,
which mostly serves as a curiosity, is Forever My Love, a 2-and-a-half-hour condensed edit of all three Sissi films into a single movie that was released in America. The film has been dubbed into English, and it features a theme song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The presentation offered here is in pretty poor shape, but is watchable and may still be entertaining for hardcore fans of the series.
The other two extras are featurettes. "From Romy to Sissi" (19:21) is the most fascinating, a behind-the-scenes piece narrated by Schneider herself and featuring rare footage from the making of the movies. The other, "Sissi's Great-Grandson at the Movies" (4:21) is sadly a bit hampered by incorrectly authored audio. As the title suggests, it features a descendant of the real Sissi watching the film and offering his thoughts on it.
Although some parts of The Sissi collection are a mixed bag -- the third and fourth films, the suspiciously smooth transfers, the 5.1 audio -- the overall joy of the first two Sissi films are well worth the effort (and other viewers may get more mileage out of Fateful Years and Victoria in Dover than I did). Recommended.
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