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BERLINALE 2023 Panorama

Frauke Finsterwalder • Director of Sisi & I

“I get depressed at historical films when they pretend that these people were behaving properly”


- BERLINALE 2023: The German filmmaker spoke to us about the inspiring liberties of ignoring historical facts and focusing on the story

Frauke Finsterwalder • Director of Sisi & I

When the Hungarian countess Irma joins the free-spirited but perpetually unhappy Austrian empress Sisi as her lady-in-waiting, she is thrown into a chaotic world of strict dieting, long walks and a sexually fluid and drug-induced court. Growing closer to Sisi, their unbalanced yet co-dependent relationship is not only skilfully brought to life by the two powerhouse performances of its leads in Sisi & I [+see also:
film review
interview: Frauke Finsterwalder
film profile
, screening in the Panorama section at the 73rd Berlinale, but also by the playful storytelling of director Frauke Finsterwalder.

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Cineuropa: There were several productions on Sisi released in the past few years, but the films with Romy Schneider still take the crown for many, even though they are heavily romanticised. Why do we like that version of this story so much?
Frauke Finsterwalder:
When the original films came out, it was at a time in the German-speaking world when big parts of the country were destroyed. Those films were a promise of another world. They're really lovely films, but it's something that I wasn't particularly interested in. My film is not a biopic or historically accurate. It is the story of Irma, her lady-in-waiting. She is named after a historical person, but she is also absolute fiction.

Their developing relationship is very human, sometimes funny and sometimes tragic. Irma keeps Sisi on this pedestal, admiring her.
Irma meets a person that's actually bigger than life in the sense of freedom, and not in the sense of court etiquette. There's a lot of physical closeness, people sitting almost on top of each other on sofas. It doesn't feel like she's the empress. I get quite depressed at historical films when they pretend that these people were always sitting stiffly in their seats and behaving properly. I don't think that's accurate at all.

On the one hand, Sisi is a victim of her circumstances, but at the same time she wants to have her cake and eat it too. She is a very contradicting character. What Sisi did you want to show on the screen? 
I wanted her to be surprising. It’s a constant change of emotions and moods. I imagine myself being Irma and what would draw me to Sisi. Also, the actress who plays her, Susanne Wolff, is like that. She has a lot of physical energy.

The movie feels also very modern, almost anachronistic at times, with its choice of music and costumes.
I'm very into pop music and decided to put songs into the screenplay,  like the Portishead song. This is funny because I didn't really like Portishead when they first entered the music scene. Or the scene where Victor puts make-up on Sisi in front of the mirror. There's a documentary about Nico where she's on stage, but she's looking at a make-up mirror. The songs also inspired the costumes. We were inspired by the 60s and 70s of the 20th century. Those in turn triggered the idea of shooting on 16mm film, rather than digital or 35mm.

This was also the first movie you directed in ten years. Why now and why this story?
I wrote several things over the years. But there were also personal reasons for the gap. Sometimes it takes a while to figure things out. Now that I had such a good time making this movie, I'm already working on the next one, because I don't want to wait so long. It's also better for my family if I actually direct films instead of directing people at home.

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