While pop culture and entertainment has once again renewed its obsession with Princess Diana, Austrian filmmaker Marie Kreutzer explores the life of another woman who rebelled against the norms of the royal court. Set in the 19th century, Corsage stars Vicky Krieps in a powerhouse performance as Empress Elisabeth (nicknamed Sisi), an enduring icon of Austrian society. Now Oscar-shortlisted for Best International Feature, Awards Radar was honored to talk with Kreutzer about her acclaimed film and the rewarding challenge of bringing Sisi’s story to the big screen.
Shane Slater: The film is based on a real figure who stood out in her time. What were your preexisting notions of Empress Elisabeth that made you want to tell this story?
Marie Kreutzer: I grew up in Austria, where she is basically a tourist magnet and pays a lot of bills in Austria, I think. But for us, she’s just an image on souvenirs really. Also, there’s these old Sisi movies from the 1950s, which are very famous and everybody thinks that Sisi. So I didn’t really know much. When I was doing the research and writing and when people around me knew that I was doing a film about her, sometimes someone would say, “Did you know this or that and it’s all the typical cliches.” The project came to me through Vicky Krieps, who I had worked with before. And then she brought up the idea of making a film about Elisabeth together, which, in the moment, I just laughed about. As I said, for me, she was just a cliché from a souvenir shop.
But the idea stayed with me. And maybe two or three years later, I started to read and to dig into it and go to the museums, which are all very close to my home, because I live right in the middle of Vienna. I’m actually in the middle of this history. So I could just go and see all these places, again, which I saw once in school. And then go there again and read and meet people who would know more about her. I felt like I went through the material to see if there was something in there that would resonate with me enough to decide to make a film about her.
SS: During your research, was there any one thing in particular that really revealed the character to you?
MK: Maybe her poems. She wrote poems, and two or three of them are widely known, because they are written on souvenir shop cups. But I read all of them that have been published. And I don’t think they’re really good poetry. But they are very interesting to read, because you sense that there are certain subjects she was dealing with over all these years. I think that she was a very good observer. And she was very melancholic, and very smart. And a tough person in many ways. When I read all this, it was like, I’m not sure if I liked the person, but I’m really fascinated by her. And I feel that her character was bigger than it was allowed to be. And I think that was specifically through the poems that came to me.
SS: I got the sense that she was a very complex woman. And I’m thinking that you probably found a lot of conflicting accounts of her. Was that the case? And how did you navigate that?
MK: I mean, I always love it when I try to create characters. This is the first time I actually wrote about people who had existed. So I had never experienced that before. But when I’m writing my scripts, I always try to bring different sides to each character. We are all very complex. And we are all different persons, depending on who we are with and how old we are, and where we are, and what we’re doing and what mood we are in.
And so I’m really trying to reflect that in my films. If you think about films that you like, and who is the best bad guy you ever saw, for example. I’m sure it’s a very complex person, because also the evil is much more interesting if it has a soft side too. If someone has a weakness for something, but still is doing this or that or maybe even a reason why he’s doing this or that.
So I’m always fascinated with the complexity of people in life and also in my work. And I try to show the complexity of people. So she was like, perfect, you know? I think she wasn’t more complex than anyone else. It was just so obvious to me that this had never been really described or shown. But I also tried it with the husband for example. It was important for me that he was not only the antagonist who would not let her be who she was, but also someone who struggled with her because she was too big for him. And so really, that was important for me to show the different sides and then just show that without judging.
I think that we as an audience are still not deep. I think we as the audience are still not used to seeing female characters as complex as male characters. That’s really something I have observed over the years. That we allow men to be much more complex than we allow women. And so I always feel like it’s a little fight that I can fight you know? Not on my own, other filmmakers also have to do it. But we have a responsibility when we produce images. And so I feel that it’s important to show the complexity of women and just let them be complex without explaining it without excuses.
SS: There was so much talk about her weight and her appearance. How did that inform how you wanted the makeup, costumes and hair to look?
MK: Yeah, she’s so famous for her waist and for her hair, that it was obviously a big part of the creation of the character in the film. The waist was important. That’s why we had very specific and, and well made corsets, which were hard to wear for Vicky over time. We all underestimated how hard it would be to really work and move in these. And then the costumes were also a lot of work because everything was custom made. And it was still during COVID.
So it sometimes was really hard to get the good fabric and go to Spain or Italy, where my costume designer would normally get this or that. So it was really much more of an adventure than it usually would be. Also, for the hair and makeup department because they had to do all the wigs, and you’re doing it with real hair. And in non-COVID times, you could just order real hair from China, and it would come within a week. And that wasn’t impossible.
So everything was harder to get. But of course, therefore also more precious. The wig maker worked on the wigs for a very long time. We wanted them to look really natural and not too neat and not too beautiful. Because I think it’s always easier to show a character like an empress or princess in a perfect way, or how people expected to look. But I wanted it to be as natural as possible. And especially the hair had its own character in the film, because it’s so long, and it’s so heavy, actually. And when she wears it open, it’s really animal-like I think. So that was the style. We were trying to create a very natural but also extreme style in a way, but not fashion extreme.
SS: Vicky embodies the role so well. Was there anything about her persona that shaped the role or did she just fit into it?
MK: I mean, she’s such a good actress. I think she could fit into everything. But the thing is that I became to realize during the process that it was an atypical role for her. In most of her roles, she’s a very nice, sweet woman. So it was really a different character for her to play. She had to spend so much time in makeup and costume rooms and even sometimes she could not eat in the corset. Sometimes it was hard for her to breathe.
So she was so focused on herself being well enough to work that she was not able to chat with the crew. But it was also good because that kind of distance made everyone feel like she really was and empress, you know? And I think that was especially new for her because she’s very down to earth, very friendly and kind and fun. And it was hard sometimes for her to, to be separated from everyone due to the process.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Corsage is now playing in select theaters.