Some historical sources put the figure at 45 cm. Apparently a tape measure would only have to be that long to completely encompass the waist of the Habsburg Empress Elizabeth. However, if the legendary beauty had difficulty breathing at the imperial court in Vienna it was due not only to her extremely tight-laced corset but also to the attitudes and conventions which permitted the Emperor’s wife no other function than to be a beautiful appendage at his side. Marie Kreutzer focuses on Elisabeth’s 40th birthday as a turning point which prompts her to withdraw gradually from this suffocating confinement. In CORSAGE she creates a portrait of a woman whose potential goes far beyond the limitations of the period.
In your last film, The Ground Beneath my Feet, you told the story of a modern woman who had no time or space for herself due to professional and social pressure. What was it that led you to the late 19th century, to the First Lady of the decaying Habsburg Empire, Empress Elisabeth and her fate, which can be perceived in a similar way, bearing in mind the period?
MARIE KREUTZER: In the final analysis the points you mention were decisive in prompting me to focus on Empress Elisabeth. I found it fascinating to explore how great that pressure must have been on her, and how she coped with it – in ways which were unusual for the time. However, it was Vicky Krieps herself who provided the immediate impulse for me to consider this subject; years ago she suggested that we should make a film about Empress Elisabeth together. At the time Elisabeth as a character didn’t interest me at all, no doubt partly because in Austria we are too close to the cliché. At some point I asked a historian what she would recommend me to read about the subject, given the huge amount of material available. That’s how I began to explore the theme, with the idea in the back of my mind that it might throw up an interesting approach. I ended up concentrating on the point when Elisabeth was about 40 and started to reject certain constraints.
In the first scene Elisabeth is in the bathtub, underwater. She is training herself to hold her breath for as long as possible. Later there are repeated aspects of confinement, notably with the corset/corsage which forms the title of the film. How did you arrive at this hidden garment, the corset and the metaphor of restricted breathing which represents Elisabeth’s situation in life?
MARIE KREUTZER: Often it isn’t really an intellectual decision. To give a very personal answer, I’m familiar with this feeling of being unable to breathe due to anxiety. People who have panic attacks also know how that feels, and many Covid patients have described it as the worst part of the experience. I’m convinced that the body reflects at some point what we experience. Elisabeth’s tightly-laced waist is very typical Sisi cliché which also corresponds to the truth. She went in for it in a big way and almost created a fashion. I was interested in a woman who, although she doesn’t have anything else under control, maintains control of her own body. Through her body she tries to explore how much she can endure.
You locate your narrative in the year 1877/78, beginning with Elisabeth’s 40th birthday, and you restrict it to a brief period. Why did you choose this window of time?
MARIE KREUTZER: The moment when Elisabeth emerged from the “beautiful young Empress” phase and embarked upon a new phase, which she also struggled with, struck me as an interesting turning point. In those days the life expectancy of a working-class woman was 40. That was also the year when her son moved away to military academy. Rudolph and Elisabeth had an unusually close mother-son relationship, for that period, and this marked the end of it. It was also the year of her encounter with the riding instructor in England. Several events occurred during the period I chose which supported the narrative I wanted to present.
How did you create your picture of Elisabeth before you started writing?
MARIE KREUTZER: I read a huge amount, and I had extensive conversations with experts. And after a certain point I told myself that CORSAGE didn’t have to be a film which depicted everything “properly” from start to finish. The interesting thing about historical figures is that every historical account is, to a certain extent, a fiction. None of us was actually there. There are always gaps that nobody can fill. That’s what led me to the plot of the film: after a certain point Elisabeth ceased to show herself, or only appeared in a veil. She wouldn’t let herself be painted anymore: the artists had to work from existing portraits. The fact that such a famous and familiar personality disappeared from everybody’s eyes was something I found incredibly interesting and, in a way, eerie.
After Vicky Krieps provided the impulse for this film project, did she also bring something to the creation of the character?
MARIE KREUTZER: Naturally she did a lot of reading about Elisabeth and became knowledgeable on the subject. But what she really brought to the role was the physical preparation. We had a huge number of costume and corset rehearsals. But above all, Vicky had to do a lot of training: ice-swimming (a scene which was unfortunately dropped during editing), riding side saddle, fencing and speaking Hungarian. For two months before we began shooting she really was working on the role of Elisabeth in Vienna day and night. Whenever she wasn’t actually training, we would meet up. It was my impression that this physical experience enabled her to grow very much into the role. The corset was a powerful influence on her posture, and it hugely limited her freedom of movement. In addition to that, the corset was also a huge psychological burden. We both hoped this experience with the corset really would help her portray the character of Elisabeth, and she was laced up so that she lost between five and 8 cm around the waist. While we were filming I often felt very guilty about that, because it really was an act of violence perpetrated on her body. You could see from her skin when the corset was unlaced how much it had damaged her body. While we were filming Vicky often told us she became extremely sad whenever the corset was laced up.
How early on did you have to work hand in hand with the costume department on this project?
MARIE KREUTZER: We started work on the costumes at a very early stage, because there was so much to do. Monika Buttinger is extremely knowledgeable, and she did some very precise research. My aim, both in terms of the rooms and the costumes, was to impose as great a reduction as possible and to concentrate on silhouettes. I also decided that all the other characters would only have one costume. Initially that was partly a matter of economy and reducing costs, but it also helps a great deal with visual recognition and underlines the clarity of the characters. Elisabeth was the only one in constant fancy dress, so to speak; she always had a new costume. We had a specialist to produce the corsets themselves. It was important to me that the corset shouldn’t be appealing in any way, and certainly not erotic: it had to be very technical item. Everything beneath the surface was supposed to be practical: skin colour, like a technical instrument that served solely to reduce the waist. The historical sources always specify Elisabeth’s waist measurement as 45 cm. In those days they would start lacing up girls as soon as they entered puberty, so the organs began to rearrange themselves at a very early stage. Proportions like that were achieved by the ongoing degeneration of the upper body.
Another element of Elisabeth’s life which is very laden with clichés is her relationship with her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph. Which observations informed your depiction of the imperial couple?
MARIE KREUTZER: Even while I was writing the screenplay I was quite certain I wanted to cast Florian Teichtmeister in the role of the Emperor, partly because I think he bears a certain resemblance to Franz Joseph but also because I consider him an outstanding actor. Actually, he works in a very different way to Vicky Krieps, but that’s also part of the stimulus for me as a director: to find out what each actor needs. While I was reading the background material, especially the correspondence between Elisabeth and Franz Joseph, I gained the impression that in a way he wasn’t up to the challenge she represented. He didn’t exert control over her the way he had imagined, the way he should have done according to conventions of the time. I found it fascinating that she was somehow superior to him. That’s another reason why this casting was important to me: Vicky really is taller than Florian, and Elisabeth was taller than her husband, although they were never depicted like that, not in a single painting. I regard that as an interesting game, with her constantly attempting to adopt a position that she was – in every respect – too big for. It was important for me to show that Franz Joseph made a great effort to do things properly. I didn’t want to depict him as the incapable husband, but to give him some depth and at the same time show that together they represented a difficult combination. Vicky and Florian may not have always got on perfectly on set, but she said in the end that she had only previously known that kind of interplay with another person from her work with Daniel Day-Lewis. A huge compliment.
Elisabeth also displayed an awareness that her status and way of life were no longer in keeping with the times. There are certain moments where we get brief indications – not just visually but also in terms of social attitudes – that some sort of transformation is underway here. To what extent did you want to convey that?
MARIE KREUTZER: There is one scene in CORSAGE where Rudolph says: “The monarchy will come to an end with you,” and Elisabeth replies: “Don’t let your father hear you say that.” Those two already know it, and Elisabeth often analysed it in her diaries and letters. It was clear to her that the monarchy was an outmoded institution. In many respects Franz Joseph was trying hard to cling on to the old order. For a long time there had been undercurrents and movements of change, but not in that court. This rejection of all modern influences was also connected to his desire to demonstrate his modesty and his ethos as a servant of the people. I find that interesting, also in connection with the present day, where we sense in so many ways that things can’t continue the way they are, but we don’t know exactly where we are heading. Allowing glimpses of this sensation that an era is coming to an end is something I found very appealing.
How do you perceive the powerful ambivalence within Elisabeth, who on the one hand yearned for freedom and suffered from the restrictions of court but was also prepared to subject herself to brutal physical restrictions from fear of losing her beauty and getting old?
MARIE KREUTZER: I wanted to portray Elisabeth at precisely this turning point, where she is clinging so desperately to her appearance as the only thing she has left. In all other respects she is constantly subjected to strict limitations: she isn’t allowed to make political statements or to fulfil any other function than being the beautiful Empress. Her beauty is all she has, but on the other hand she becomes increasingly furious with her own image, furious that she is only allowed to be that image: is that me? Aren’t I anything else? In my view, here she is at a tipping point, where it is no longer sufficient for her to get constant confirmation that she is beautiful. At one stage she says to her lady in waiting: “You’re the only person who loves me the way I am.” There’s nobody who sees her the way she is. This realisation expresses itself in action and in decisions: that’s what I wanted to depict. Her fear of losing her beauty is a factor because that’s the only value she has.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
Translation: Charles Osborne
Translation: Charles Osborne