is why “Old Europe” is a term of such derision. In the early Twentieth Century Austro-Hungarian
Empire, snobbery was at its most severe when applied within the noble classes.
Privilege was assiduously protected and innovation was just as strenuously
discouraged. The heir-apparent meant to shake things up, but alas, it was not to
be. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s courtship of Countess Sophie Chotek and their
tragic final days take on further significance in Max Öphuls’ woefully overlooked
but freshly restored 1940 classic, From
Mayerling to Sarajevo, which opens this Friday at Film Forum.
this story will end badly for Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Everyone should know
an assassin’s bullet awaits them in Sarajevo. Those who consider that a spoiler
should go hang their heads in shame. The Mayerling reference may not be so
obvious, but it was the murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress,
Baroness Mary Vetsera at the Habsburg hunting lodge in Mayerling that thrust
Franz Ferdinand into the immediate line of succession.
the film opens, the current Emperor Franz Josef has resigned himself to Franz
Ferdinand role as his successor, despite his misgivings over the younger noble’s
reformist inclinations. Of course, it is his professed preference for
decentralization and tolerance that makes the Archduke rather popular throughout
the empire. It is generally good for business to keep him busy with inspection
tours, but that is how he meets the Countess.
Chotek is a noble-born Czech, but that was not good enough for the Habsburgs.
Supposedly, only nobility directly related to crowned heads of state were eligible
to marry the Archduke. Frankly, their initially meeting goes rather badly,
culminating with Chotek giving him a dressing down of sorts, but he loves every
minute of it. Soon romances blossoms, but they try to keep it a secret for the
sake of the Archduke’s future position. However, their love will not be denied,
especially when oily court ministers start conspiring against them.
Sarajevo (as it is often
more simply known) is one of the oddest star-crossed romances, because it
openly invites sympathy for two lovers born into unimaginable good fortune,
while it inexorably hurtles towards its catastrophic end. Indeed, Franz Ferdinand
and Sophie were a couple worthy of Shakespeare, but Öphuls and a small platoon
of screenwriters (including Carl Zuckmayer and Jacques Natanson) do them
justice. They also rather burnishes the image of Franz Ferdinand, who is
largely considered something of a footnote today. While opinions vary as to the
extent of his liberalism, it is hard to dismiss his tentative support for the
concept of a “United States of Austria” (duly featured in the film) and the
necessary loss of status it implied.
Sarajevo also serves as a
worthy re-introduction to American actor John Lodge, who is suitably commanding,
yet slightly roguish as Franz Ferdinand. Fluent in French, Lodge (the brother
of Henry Cabot, Jr.) is now better known for his political career as a Connecticut
Congressman and Governor and later the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, Argentina, and
Switzerland. He truly looks the part and develops some believably spirited
romantic chemistry with French leading lady Edwige Feuillère. As Sophie, she
must walk a fine line between fighting for her man and suffering for her
country, but she makes her dilemmas feel quite real and pressing.
Sarajevo, we understand Franz
Ferdinand and Sophie are not joking when they say the Empire needs him. It is
easy to envision a far less turbulent (and bloody) Twentieth Century had he not
been assassinated. With the National Socialist invasion imminent, Öphuls
clearly invokes his democratic reputation for propaganda purposes, but Öphuls
would take refuge in Hollywood, by way of Switzerland and Spain soon after its
Frankly, it is rather eerie watching how petty
concern for court protocol inadvertently led to such horrific macro events.
Throughout the film, Öphuls demonstrates a wonderfully shrewd eye for the
trappings and architecture of power while portraying the royal romance with
humor and sensitivity. Hugely entertaining in ways both grand and hauntingly
sad, From Mayerling to Saravejo is
very highly recommended when it opens this Friday (3/27) in New York, at Film
Labels: French Cinema, John Lodge, Max Ophuls