Seeing Sisi in a new light
Sisi showrunner Andreas Gutzeit, director Sven Bohse and executive producer Hauke Barthel tell DQ about their ambitions to retell “Europe’s greatest love story” for modern audiences.
So far, the story of a Bavarian princess called Elisabeth who would become the empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has been told only in a trio of 1950s films starring Romy Schneider.
But now a new historical drama will revisit the woman born as Duchess Elisabeth – described as a pop star and an influencer of her time – for modern audiences in a six-part German-language series that, like the films, takes its title from her nickname: Sisi.
Starring Dominique Devenport (Night Train to Lisbon) in the lead role, Sisi follows the true story of Elisabeth, who at the end of the 19th century falls in love with the emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph I. But soon after their marriage, she begins to find that life at the Habsburg court in Vienna is not what she expected.
Produced by Story House Pictures and distributed by Beta Film, the series comes from showrunner Andreas Gutzeit, who set upon the idea to retell Sisi’s story while watching the Schneider films – a German Christmas tradition – while on a festive family holiday in Costa Rica.
“I sat there and thought, ‘This is ridiculous. Doesn’t this deserve a relaunch in the 21st century?’” he tells DQ ahead of the drama’s world premiere at French television festival Canneseries tonight. “Now here we are. The challenge was always to get away as much as possible from the 1950s sugar-coated story, which was made at a completely different time. But the story is the story. It remains Europe’s greatest love story, so these characters and the journey they went through make for a great modern television series.”
For broadcaster RTL, the decision to remake Sisi for its TVNow streaming platform was not an easy one. “Particularly when you look for content for Christmas, no one in Germany won’t watch Sisi,” executive producer Hauke Barthel says of the films. “They’re such an iconic, emotional, signature brand, but we were intrigued by Andreas’s mission to revisit that. We asked ourselves what is the creative grasp on the story that makes it a modern, universal and broad show that not only delivers this sugar-coated fairytale but gets deeper and more complex and dares to be darker as well. What Andreas delivered made us fall in love with Sisi once again.”
From the beginning, the series achieves its ambition to stand apart from the well-known films by displaying Sisi’s sexuality, with a scene Gutzeit says was designed to show audiences how the series would present her as a woman in control of herself and her destiny, rather than under the influence of those around her at court.
“When she faces challenges and difficulties, she will suffer like a dog and come through like a hero,” he says. “This is true for any character we want, but especially today in the 21st century with a female-led story, it’s even more important and that’s what we wanted to achieve.
“We also want our Sisi going through a dramatic arc, and not only in the love story. She’s involved in politics, she will solve big political issues and she does it in a way Franz can’t. He is the sword and blood and Sisi is the opposite, and that’s very true of the historical figure as well.”
Gutzeit shared head writer duties with Robert Krause (Bloodtrails) and they were both supported in the writers room by Elena Hell, who Gutzeit says was key to finding the right tone of voice for the title character.
“I’ve worked with Robert for more than 20 years so we have a common vocabulary. He is a very gifted storyteller and he’s one of the best script teachers in Germany,” the showrunner says. “That’s where he also met Elena. From the beginning he said, ‘She will find the voice of Sisi,’ and that was exactly true. Elena is a young writer who dazzled us with the first versions of the script.
“The very first scene is an idea that came out of a discussion with the RTL team. We wrote it and then we never really talked about that scene again because we instinctively knew if we did it, we would solve many problems in terms of comparisons to the old story and in terms of relevance. She’s in control of her destiny. That’s the character we wanted to show.”
RTL was very involved in the early development of the series, which has been just 18 months in the making and is due to air on TVNow in December. But after finding that common vision, Barthel was happy to “let the professionals do what they do best and try not to interfere more than was necessary.”
It was an attitude appreciated by Gutzeit and director Sven Bohse (Dark Woods), who was up for the challenge of retelling Sisi’s story in a new way without falling into the “trap” of simply making an overly romantic love story.
“There was a lot of trust and freedom,” the director says. “Andreas and me always had the deal that we could take this any way we wanted. They said take the money and make something out of it. That gave me a lot of motivation.
“What caught me when I read the scripts was the obvious attempt not to follow that path but to find a modern and courageous way to tell this story, to create characters that have both dark and light sides and who have interesting conflicts. It’s not about a girl falling in love with a king but a young woman seeking her own power. When these elements came together, I felt I could tell this with a new perspective and find new ways of discovering a character that many people think they know very well.”
With the show being filmed on location in Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Hungary and Germany between April and August this year, Bohse’s task was to blend intimate character moments with eye-catching landscapes, mountains and beautiful homes that were used to create a feeling of celebrity around Sisi, for whom 45 haute couture dresses were designed and made just for the series in a nod to the character’s influencer status. He also filmed using anamorphic lenses to give the series a more cinematic look.
“The challenge was to make it an epic costume drama but not to slip into the old-school, traditional way of telling it,” he says. “We had to create imagery that is very connected to the perspective of the characters, which is very close on them and, in certain moments, is made more spontaneous by using a handheld camera or shooting scenes with more choreography so the camera has to capture the moment and you’re not relying on editing. Using those elements, we get the best of both worlds – modern, pacy, powerful and direct storytelling with a very good perspective of the main characters.”
Bohse also had to recreate several battles, in which Franz Joseph is joined by dozens of soldiers fighting on foot and on horseback with guns and bayonets. Yet the emotion on the battlefield is always linked back to his relationship with Sisi.
“What I liked is that it’s not only one genre,” the director continues. “It’s not only a drama or a classic biopic you might expect but it combines different elements from fantasy to adventure to drama to history. That made it attractive to me. I was also eager to shoot with horses. It was about time I did – I’d done everything else up until then, so it was time for some horses.”
He also praises the “super professionalism” of Devenport and Jannik Schümann (Charité), who plays Franz Joseph, as the actors were sometimes tasked with completing 10 or 11 hour days on set during the four-month shoot, which was conducted under Covid restrictions. Devenport was also put under the strain of wearing costumes with tight corsets in the style of the period.
“This was a bone-crushing job for Dominique,” Gutzeit says. “It took an hour-and-a-half each day to get her into costume. It was a physically hard role. For a young actor in her first job on an international series, when you find somebody like that, there’s a reason why you cast her because you instantly fall in love with her. We saw the same journey in Dominique [as in Sisi], as she began as a ‘newbie’ and she ends up, in my mind, as a star.”
But as much as the creative team wanted this new version of Sisi to stand apart from the celebrated films, they also sought to capture the title character in the same spirit that has meant Schneider’s portrayal has lasted the test of time.
When the films were produced, audiences wanted “a huge love story and wanted to be wowed by the grandeur of things, of Sisi’s dream and by the journey that woman took,” Gutzeit says. “That’s exactly what we’re doing, we’re just doing it in a new, modern, fresh way. The journey has not gotten easier for our Sisi; it’s gotten harder. They are still great movies, and what Sven put on the screen is just as grand and big.”
“We’ve achieved a way to look behind the curtain of a royal story,” Bohse says of the series, which has already been renewed for a second season and has been picked up by international networks such as France’s TF1 and ORF in Austria. Other buyers include Mediaset in Italy, VTM in Belgium, Globoplay in Brasil, NPO in the Netherlands, RTL in Hungary, RTVS in Slovakia and Viasat World’s Epic Drama channel throughout Eastern Europe, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.
“We’re not telling the story you expect; we look deep into the characters, and their journey also gives you an answer to the question of what makes an empress and what makes an emperor,” Bohse adds. “That insight into those characters and those roles made it especially interesting for me.”
“It’s probably the biggest German-speaking love story there is,” Barthel says. “While the original movies presented their love as all sugary, easy and beautiful, this approach shows the beauty of it but also the complexity of it, the dark side, the ambiguity. This is something that makes Sisi a universal story.”