Monday, November 29, 2010

Mayerling (1968)

Crown Prince Rudolph: "On the red carpet, blood does not show...."
~ Mayerling (1968)
The few times I have watched Mayerling  it has always been in  the middle of the night. For some reason, in my part of the world anyway, Mayerling only seems to run at midnight or sometime after, which is appropriate for the dark content of the film. The plot surrounds the tormented life and mysterious death of Crown Prince Rudolf, only son of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary and Empress Elisabeth. According to Turner Classic Movies:
Mayerling (1968) is a lavishly designed and photographed costume drama, a genre that enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 1960s, in the wake of David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965). Omar Sharif - who also played the title character in Lean's picture - stars in Mayerling as Rudolph, the Crown Prince of Hapsburg. The film was inspired by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of the real Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria and a beautiful young woman in 1889.

Director Terence Young spins a romantic tale based on Rudolph's doomed relationship with Baroness Maria Vetsera (Catherine Deneuve). Rudolph yearns for Maria, but he's been forced by his overpowering father, Emperor Franz Josef (James Mason), into a loveless marriage with Crown Princess Stephanie (Andrea Parisy). Stephanie's sour personality drives Rudolph to an affair with a young actress (Fabienne Dali), as well as to a dalliance with morphine.

When Maria is sent to Venice to discourage the possibility of an illicit romance, Rudolph is encouraged by his sympathetic mother, Empress Elizabeth (Ava Gardner), to bring her back. Unfortunately, Rudolph's involvement in a failed Hungarian political uprising is suddenly revealed, much to the dissatisfaction of his father. With their future together looking bleak, Rudolph and Maria decide to seal their fate with a final, irrevocable act.
I think Mayerling would have fared better with a director other than Terence Young. As Cinema of the World expresses it:
The film was directed by Terence Young, perhaps best known for his James Bond films (which are considered amongst the best in that series). Young is a competent director but few of his films show much in the way of artistic merit or imagination. Mayerling is probably the clearest indication of this. Visually, the film is quite stunning, offering a convincing recreation of the period in which it is set. Most of the cast put in some solid performances (James Robertson Justice’s Prince of Wales being particularly memorable), and composer Francis Lai delivers one of his most beautiful scores. But the film is, overall, strangely empty, lacking passion, humanity and charm.
The costumes, sets and score are quite opulent and authentic, except for the heavy 1960's eye make-up on the women, more fitting for a James Bond movie than an historical drama. Watching the pageantry of a lost era makes the film worthwhile and enjoyable, however, at least to me. Critics have complained of the lack of passion between the romantic leads, as well of the remoteness and detachment of Deneuve's performance as Maria Vetsera. However, the story is not so much about love and passion as it is about despair. And Deneuve's remote and ethereal portrayal makes Maria elusive to Rudolf even when she is in his arms, symbolizing all the things in his life that are unattainable. Of course, the real Maria was a rather buxom wench, plump and pretty; not much like the exquisite Catherine Deneuve. I also think that James Mason's Franz Josef is too harsh and rigid, but perhaps that is how his son perceived him. (Read more »)

As for the double suicide of Rudolf and Maria, did it really occur as portrayed in the film? There is a great deal of mystery and controversy surrounding the deaths of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his mistress. Empress Zita, the last empress, insisted that Rudolf and Maria were murdered as part of a plot against the imperial family. According to historian Art Beéche:
Several historians believe that the key to unlock the events at Mayerling will most likely never be found. Many argue that the Austrian police's cover-up of the deaths of Rudolf and Marie Vetsera, his young and foolish lover, shrouded Mayerling in mystery. Furthermore, the tragic events at Mayerling continue to trouble many people who desperately want the mystery revealed. For example, just days before Christmas 1992 it was discovered that the mortal remains of Marie Vetsera had been mysteriously removed from the cemetery at Heiligenkreuz, where they had laid in deadly silence for more than a century. After initial consternation, the local police was able to track down the coffin and recover Vetsera's remains. To verify that the remains were those of young Marie, the police asked the Viennese Medical Institute to examine the remains and identify if indeed they were those of Mayerling victim.

Upon inspection of the human remains recovered by the police, medical examiners discovered that the head of the young woman lacked any traces of a perforating bullet. The cranial cavity was not destroyed by the suspected bullet that Crown Prince Rudolf had fired into his lover's head. On the contrary, the cranial cavity showed signs of trauma. These lacerations could have been caused by a heavy object or some gardening equipment, but not by a bullet. And if in fact this was the Vetsera's body, then the official version of a double suicide at Mayerling had been a hoax all along. Zita's version of the Mayerling tragedy seemed to hold ground.

The old Empress Zita's observations on Mayerling were founded on several disturbing facts. These were also an echo of the many speculations freely roaming around Viennese court circles after the death of Rudolf. On February 9, 1889, the German Ambassador in Vienna sent a missive to Berlin in which he reported a conversation with the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor Luigi Galimberti, and the Habsburg Court Chaplain, Monsignor Lorenz Mayer. During this conversation, the officious ambassador reported, the two well-informed prelates expressed their serious doubts concerning the official version of the events at Mayerling.

Half a century later, in 1946, the tomb of Marie Vetsera was desecrated by the occupying Soviet forces. Possibly looking for jewels, Soviet troops looted Marie Vetsera's remains. This profanity was not discovered until 1955 when the Red Army abandoned Austria. In 1959 specialists in funereal preservation, accompanied by a doctor and a member of the Vetsera family, examined the remains. They were all shocked to discover that the body of the young woman in the vault did not present any traces of death by firearm. What they did observe was a large trauma on the crown of the head. This fact supported the version which alleged that the mistress of the Austrian Crown Prince had not been killed by Rudolf, but had fallen foul to Rudolf's assassins. Yet in 1955, this macabre discovery was curiously ignored by all concerned.

The German note, as well as the forensic evidence found in Vetsera's body, are just many of the proofs challenging the official version of Rudolf and Marie's death. Many have alleged that Rudolf's body showed signs of a violent confrontation before death. Lacerations were discovered in several parts of the body. His hands showed signs of struggle, which might demonstrate that the poor Crown Prince tried desperately to fight off his would-be assassins. It also seems that the revolver used to kill both Rudolf and Vetsera was not the one owned by the Crown Prince, and that all six bullets were fired. In this case, Marie Vetsera was not the foul victim of a tragic love affair, but the unwilling witness of one of the most daring political assassinations ever achieved.
 The assassination theory is explained in greater detail in Leo J. Hammerschmid's biography of Empress Zita which claims that Georges Clemenceau plotted to break up the alliance of Austria-Hungary with Germany and Italy. Clemenceau sent his agent Cornelius Herz to approach Crown Prince Rudolf and encourage him to head a plot to overthrow his father the emperor. Rudolf was seen as a liberal and someone who could be used to break up the empire. For all his petulant rebelliousness against Franz Josef, Rudolf was allegedly outraged at the suggestion that he would betray his own father. However, knowing of the plot, Rudolf knew that he would then be targeted for assassination which is why, Hammerschmid claims, the Crown Prince had retreated to the hunting lodge of Mayerling. It is an intriguing theory. Although I personally think that Rudolf was quite capable of killing himself, since he played around with drugs and probably struggled with depression like some of his Wittelsbach relatives, including his mother, some of the other evidence makes me lean towards the murder theory. The claim that six shots were said to have been fired and that not a single bullet was found in Maria Vetsera's skull, which had been crushed by a blow, has me thinking that it was not a simple suicide pact but rather a violent attack by intruders resulting in death. It is a mystery which we may never unravel. (More HERE.)

Ava Gardner as Empress Elizabeth, James Mason as Emperor Franz Josef, Omar Sharif as Crown Prince Rudolf and Catherine Deneuve as Maria Vetsera
The real Maria Vetsera
Crown Prince Rudolf
Rudolf and his wife Stephanie


MadMonarchist said...

I continue to watch this movie just for the spectacle of it but I just can't get beyond Omar Sharif as Crown Prince Rudolf. He just looks much too non-Austrian and far too strapping and healthy. He's a great actor I think but I don't think he should have been picked for this part. The rest of the cast I liked (especially Ava Gardner) except perhaps for Princess Stephanie who I tend to have more sympathy for.

tubbs said...

You might prefer the much older French version with Charles Boyer as the Crown Prince. I only saw parts of it, and I don't remember it having English sub-titles.
But for the REAL Mayerling, just what did Zita have to say, right before her death in 1989?

elena maria vidal said...

Yes,MM, I think there is someone else they should have cast, although Sharif certainly does his best with the part.

elena maria vidal said...

Tubbs, I talk about what Zita said in the second part of the article. She said they were murdered and I tend to agree with her. As for the older version, everyone prefers it, but I do not like it as much. I guess I like the music and spectacle of the 1968 one. ;-)

May said...

Thank you for this extensive and informative post, and also for linking back to mine.

Here is a post about Elisabeth Marie, the daughter of Rudolf and Stephanie; she also turned out to be a handful:

elena maria vidal said...

Absolutely, Matterhorn, you are THE authority on the Belgians. Oh, and thanks for the article on the Red Archduchess. What a piece of work she was!

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

The real portrait looks like Mlle Kampusch ...

elena maria vidal said...

Un petit peu.....