‘Sisi’: Sex, Politics, Period Glam as RTL, Beta, Story House Bring a Legend into the Modern World

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Event series ‘Sisi,’ a new take on Empress Elizabeth of Austria from RTL, Beta Film and Story House Productions, sets itself apart from the very get-go.

Romy Schneider’s ‘50s cult movie trilogy turned a historical icon into a decorous pop legend. Kicking off in 1854, “Sisi,” the new series, delivers scenes of gobsmacking glamor, as when the camera slowly rises to expose the grandeur of Sisi’s home, a lakeside chateau.

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But its realism – sexual, political and psychological – brings an edge to such period money shots. A declaration of intentions, Sisi begins with the heroine (Dominique Devenport) as a teen, stealthily pleasuring herself in her bed until her sister barges in through the door. After a family dinner scene, cut to the dashing young Emperor Franz Josef (Jannik Schümann) astride a horse, riding – a reverse shot reveals – to a scaffold where he will personally authorize the public hanging of Hungarian rebels, his horse trampling a free Hungary flag under hoof.

A six-part flagship series for RTL Plus made by Story House Pictures and backed and sold by Beta Film, “Sisi” is a symbol of the revolution resetting the foundations of a once conservative German TV.

That raises a large opportunity: At about minute 25 in “Sisi’s” first episode, fiction obviously kicks in when Sisi and Franz gallop on horseback through a forest, then are attacked by Hungarian rebels in an brutal forest scene whose layered sexual adrenaline fast-tracks the relationship, but as one of equals.

Bringing a modern candor and more psychological acuity to the relationship between Franz and Sisi, the series can ask how great love stories really play out, and leave the audience guessing at the answer.

Variety chatted to “Sisi” showrunner Andreas Gutzeit, at Story House Pictures, director Sven Bohse (“Ku’damm 56,” “Ku’damm 59”) and Hauke Bartel, RTL head of fiction, on one of the big plays at this year’s Canneseries.

Scene one, then the executions, immediately set “Sisi” apart….

Gutzeit: We want to present a modern woman in a story told for the modern 21st century. With Sven’s direction, we found a way to tastefully, yet courageously show how this will tell the classic story of Sisi but of course involve sexuality and a modern view of the role of a woman under pressure, in a political situation, and a modern take on what modern relationships can be like between Sisi and Franz. That’s also important.

You do so from the very beginning….

Gutzeit: Yes, we wanted to make sure that from the very get-go, from scene one, everybody knows that we are not seeking nor inviting any comparison to the classic Romy Schneider movies. Our star, Dominique Devenport, told us she didn’t know nor watch the movies. There was no reason to do that, because our take is new, fresh. It’s just the greatest European love story of all time, that we are choosing to retell with modern means.

Its modernity allows you to get closer to how that love story may really have played out.

Gutzeit: Yes. About historical accuracy. Most of the events that are outward facing – the engagement, the wedding, Sisi’s trips – people can read about them on Wikipedia, though we present them fresh and new. Anything where we close the door – when they’re alone in the woods, or elsewhere – this is 100% fresh and fictional. But the pains my writing colleagues Elena Hell and Robert Krause and I took to interpret the characters in a fresh and modern way means that we ended up often, I suspect, being more historically accurate, a little closer than film trilogy director Ernst Marischka 70 years ago.

Sven, the direction, from what I’ve seen of the series, mixes different styles. Classic period drama composure, against dappled backgrounds; big screen cinematography; nervier handheld work, as when Sisi meets Franz for the first time, for tea, with her family.

Bohse: I think you’ve kind of nailed it. On the one hand, we wanted to satisfy audience expectations, with great visuals with a cinematic impact, getting away from the feel of digital formats. So we shot with anamorphic lenses, which alter color and depth of field a bit, making backgrounds less defined, giving a feel of a painting and a certain elegance to images.

Sisi - Credit: Credit: Lukas Salna
Sisi - Credit: Credit: Lukas Salna

Credit: Lukas Salna

There’s also an edginess to certain scenes, however….

Bohse: Yes, anamorphic gives you more space left and right, helping to arrange the actors, telling more in one shot without editing too much. But it can get too stiff, too stagey. We still needed to give a direct feeling, which you expect from modern series, so from time to time we took the camera and ran around. That made for strong choreography, a sense of spontaneity, brought you closer to characters, sucking you into the story, making it feel fresher.

You had some spectacular shots such as Sisi and Franz galloping across a grass field towards the camera as it charges towards them…

Bohse: That was a cablecam, where you mount the camera on a wire, controlled by remote. Somebody said on set that there wasn’t one camera movement that we didn’t try to use on the series.

Yes, “Sisi” reminds me of Alejandro Amenábar’s “La Fortuna,” where, as Movistar Plus’ Domingo Corral put it, the dramatic structure is TV, but the direction pure cinema. Hauke, “Sisi” is both high-end premium and event family entertainment. How can you accommodate both in release?

Bartel: What makes this program so special for us is that we believe that it can play both these outlets. As you know, we’re re-launching TVNow as RTL Plus, a SVOD and linear free-to-air network, on Nov. 3. We firmly believe that “Sisi” is such a unique and visually stunning project that it will be something that people will get a subscription for but also something where the family gathers around Christmas time and watches on our broadcast because “Sisi’s” creative way of revisiting the story will generate a lot of discussion.

Would you see RTL as in some kind of revolution in terms of how it’s broadening its range of entertainment in a scripted space and “Sisi” forming part of that?

Bartel: Absolutely. we launched a new drama initiative in February at the Berlinale when we announced 12 new shows ranging from three or four other really big-budgeted event shows apart from “Sisi” to “Faking Hitler” and also really smaller niche auteur driven shows that will generate short-term subscriber range. If you look at the slate that we have in development right now and that we’re putting on the platform over the next three, four, five months, it’s quite the opposite to what RTL scripted programming stood for over many years.

What’s changing?

Bartel: It’s getting increasingly hard to launch one hour procedurals or case of the week cop shows on linear broadcast, especially on commercial linear broadcast. I wouldn’t say that if we find the perfect cop show that we wouldn’t start developing it. But I believe a show like “Sisi” will generate VOD subscribers and prove a must-watch on broadcast. When “Sisi” comes out, everyone will be talking about it.

I caught “Germinal” at Series Mania, made by Banijay Studios for Alliance partners France Televisions and Italy’s RAI, and I was impressed how they attempted to scale up a classic, introducing pace and a sense of physical danger. The other high-profile Canneseries play is “Around the World in 80 Days,” another big Alliance title. Do you feel that as one of Europe’s major broadcasters, RTL needs to have event series as part of its identity?

Bartel: Right now it’s an absolute necessity for broad entertainment brands like RTL to have these kinds of shows. Not only to keep up with international standards, both storytelling wise, budget wise, but to try to go a little bit further. I can only speak for RTL, but in 25 months we’ve quadrupled our scripted programming investment. Drama is still the genre that really creates a emotional connection to entertainment brands.

Andreas Gutzeit, Hauke Bartel and Sven Bohse - Credit: Courtesy of Beta Film
Andreas Gutzeit, Hauke Bartel and Sven Bohse - Credit: Courtesy of Beta Film

Courtesy of Beta Film

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