Austrian-born actress Romy Schneider (1938–1982) went from playing Bavarian princesses in frothy historical dramas to working with some of the most influential and daring European filmmakers of her era during the 1960s and 1970s. "Elegant and sensuous, she had a striking screen presence," noted Schneider's Times of London obituary from 1982, "but despite excellent performances of both comic and dramatic parts, her career did not quite fulfil its early promise."
Schneider was born Rosemarie Magdalena Albach-Retty on September 23, 1938, in Vienna, Austria, and during her early years "Romy" became the shortened version of her given name. She was the third generation in a theatrical family on the side of her father, Wolf Albach-Retty, who regularly appeared with the Vienna Volkstheater. Her paternal grandmother, Rosa Albach-Retty, had been a famous Vienna stage actress of an earlier era. Schneider's mother, meanwhile, was a film actress in Germany during in the 1930s, appearing in the light comedies and toothless historical epics that were part of the Nazi government's propaganda effort. During World War II, Schneider's parents separated, and after the age of four she lived with her mother and maternal grandparents in Berchtesgaden, Germany, where she attended school.
As a teen, Schneider attended a school in Salzburg, Austria, where she performed in plays and participated in several sports. Her ambition was to become a painter, a career idea she jettisoned after her film career was suddenly launched at the age of 15. A director of one of her mother's films offered a part playing the on-screen daughter, and Wenn der weisse Flieder wieder blüht (When the White Lilacs Bloom Again) was a box-office success in 1953. Schneider was offered more parts, including a light biopic about the adolescence of Queen Victoria, Mädchenjahre einer Königen (Girlhood of a Queen).
Mädchenjahre einer Königen was written and directed by veteran Austrian filmmaker Ernst Marischka, and its success led to Schneider being cast in 1955's Sissi, the first in a trilogy of films about Elisabeth, the wife of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef. The film was a huge success in West Germany and Austria at the time and was quickly followed by two sequels that chronicled the beloved princess's 1854 wedding and subsequently tragic personal life. The trilogy's popularity seemed linked to some lingering post-World War II unease in West Germany, maintained critic Ute Schneider. "Hardly any other 1950s tearjerker film had been more effective in letting the audience sob their heart out," she wrote, according to an essay in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. "It is a pertinent example of the continuing repression of political reality that can be traced in [German] entertainment cinema. Sissi demonstrated yet again the victory of the heart over the 'evil' of politics, the dream of conquering people and countries with no more than a feminine smile and maternal care."
Fled to Paris
Sissi made Schneider a major new screen star in Europe at the time, but the films proved to have a longevity few expected. "Unrivalled in their sentimentality, the Sissi films remain a staple of daytime television schedules and occupy an exalted place in German gay iconography," Guardian writer Denis Staunton asserted years later. An abridged version of the trilogy was dubbed in English and titled Forever My Love for its 1962 release, but overseas audiences were unimpressed. Nor did Mädchenjahre einer Königen do particularly well when a dubbed English version was released in 1958 as The Story of Vickie, but Schneider did make her first visit to the United States on a small press tour for the release that year.
Schneider later said that her family was still largely in control of her career at the time and were selecting her scripts for her. She was cast in a 1958 movie Christine, about romantic intrigues at the 1906 Viennese court, which co-starred her with Alain Delon, one of France's top leading men at the time. The pair fell in love, and upon their engagement Schneider left Germany and settled in Paris with him. The German tabloid press was outraged, as were the studios, directors, and producers who depended on her box-office allure. Despite her fame, she later recalled in an interview with the magazine Life, she instead felt like "an orange that must be pressed to the last drop. Nobody ever thought of me, or ever asked me to shout or be a real human being. People thought, 'How sweet, how lovely, how kind she is!' I wanted to be modern and hard, to be a grown-up woman. I had to run away."
Taking a break from film for a time, Schneider made an uncredited cameo appearance in Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), the first-ever film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley novels, but turned down other parts. She was even offered $200,000 for a fourth Sissi, but Schneider was determined to transform herself into a serious film actress, despite the sniping back home that she had given up her career for love. "I sometimes think I am too true, too honest, too direct," she told a writer for Look in 1962. "That was what they thought was wrong with me in Germany.… The German people are now very happy about my new career, and they want me to return. But I will not speak to German film producers because they refused to understand me."
Schneider's return to the screen began with her debut on the Paris stage with Delon in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, an Elizabethan drama in translation that required Schneider to play her part in French, which was still unfamiliar to her. The production, in the hands of a famously formidable Italian stage and screen director Luchino Visconti, was a hit with critics and theater-goers, and led Visconti to cast her in Boccaccio '70. This was a trilogy of stories involving some salacious romantic intrigues, with Anita Ekberg and Sophia Loren playing the two other roles in segments directed by renowned Italian filmmakers Federico Fellini and Vittorio de Sica. The film was a terrific success across Europe and was released in North America as well. In her story, Schneider played a contessa who discovers that her husband regularly hires costly prostitutes and decides to fool him once herself.
After that point, Schneider made a few films in English, including Orson Welles's lauded adaptation of the Franz Kafka novel The Trial. The 1962 version starred Anthony Perkins as a man who is put on trial for unknown crimes; in an effort to clear his name, he visits the palatial home of the mysterious "Advocate," played by Welles. Schneider was cast as the seductive maid there, Leni. Next, Schneider appeared in The Victors, a 1963 Columbia Studios project set during World War II. She also made The Cardinal with Otto Preminger, playing a young Viennese woman who falls in love with Tom Tryon's ambitious Roman Catholic priest.
A Few Hollywood Hits
That same year, Schneider's last notable English-language movie was released, What's New, Pussycat? The script was written by Woody Allen, the first full-length comedy from him, and featured Peter O'Toole as the fiancéof Schneider's character. He is desperate to curb his infidelities before their impending wedding, but women seem to fall madly in love with him; Peter Sellers played the psychoanalyst who is attempting to cure him, and all parties—including the film's supporting stars, Capuchine and Ursula Andress—descend on a country villa for a farcical weekend.
Object of Tabloid Gossip
Schneider went back to France around 1966. Though she continued to appear in the occasional French film with Delon, their romance cooled and he was rumored to have ended it by sending her a single rose. She wed actor and director Harry Meyen-Haubenstock in 1966, with whom she had a son, but they were divorced by 1975, and in Europe's celebrity magazines Schneider was regularly deemed unlucky in love by the press. Her personal life became the subject of tabloid fodder, with even a miscarriage making headlines, but Schneider gave birth to a second child, Sarah, in 1977 with her new husband, photographer Daniel Biasini.
Schneider's career was boosted when director Claude Sautet began casting her with Michel Piccoli in a series of movies, many of which focused on her appeal as an intelligent, sexually modern woman. These included Les Choses de la Vie (The Things of Life) in 1970, Max et les ferrailleurs (Max and the Junkmen) in 1971, and 1972's César et Rosalie. She reprised her "Sissi" role when Visconti made the 1973 period drama Ludwig, about the princess's cousin, Prince Ludwig II of Bavaria. This time, however, her Sissi was no sweet ingénue but rather a calculating young woman who views her increasingly unstable cousin Ludwig, who is in love with her, as an unsuitable choice for a spouse.
In 1975, Schneider made a film with Claude Chabrol, Les Innocents aux mains sales (Dirty Hands). Its story centered on a woman who plots to kill her husband, played by Rod Steiger, with her lover in Saint-Tropez. In 1977, she appeared in her first German production in nearly two decades, Gruppenbild mit Dame (Group Portrait with Lady). The film was a joint French-German effort based on a popular nonfiction book by German writer Heinrich Böll, and it won her the Deutscher Filmpreis for Acting that year. In 1979, she appeared in the Costa-Gavras film Clair de femme, following it with a work from director Bertrand Tavernier, La Mort en direct (Deathwatch).
A Tragic End
Schneider's health began to fail, and her personal life indeed turned tragic when her 14-year-old son died after climbing over the iron gate of their garden. She underwent a serious kidney operation and died of heart failure in her Paris home on May 29, 1982. Her last film was released in 1981, La Passante du Sans-Souci (The Passerby), another French-German co-production in which she co-starred once more with Piccoli. Posthumously, Schneider became an icon in Europe, the symbol of an era when women performers began to take on more daring, provocative roles. There have been several French and German-language biographies of her life and career, and between Vienna and Villach there is even an inter-city train named in her honor that runs twice daily.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, St. James Press, 1996.
Good Housekeeping, March 1965.
Guardian (London, England), August 15, 1996.
Life, June 14, 1963.
Look, September 11, 1962.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 7, 2000.
Time, December 14, 1962.
Times (London, England), May 31, 1982.
Nationality: Austrian. Born: Rosemarie Magdalena Albach-Retty in Vienna, Austria, 23 September 1938. Education: Attended school in Berchtesgaden; Pensionnat Goldstein, Salzburg. Family: Married 1) Harry Meyen-Haubenstock, 1966 (divorced 1975), son: David Christophe; 2) Daniel Biassini, 1975 (separated), daughter: Sarah Magdalena. Career: 1952—left school to appear in her mother's film Wenn der weisse Flieder wieder blüht; 1959—moved to Paris; 1961—on stage in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore; 1963–65—appeared in leading roles in Hollywood films; 1966—returned to Paris and starred in numerous international productions. Awards: Deutscher Filmpreis for Acting, 1977; French César Awards for Best Actress, 1975 and 1978. Died: In Paris, 29 May 1982.
Films as Actress:
Wenn der weisse Flieder wieder blüht (Deppe)
Feuerwerk (Hoffmann); Mädchenjahre einer Königen (The Story of Vickie) (Marischka) (as Queen Victoria)
Der letzte Mann (Braun); Die Deutschmeister (Mam'zelle Cricri) (Marischka)
Sissi (Marischka) (as Princess Elisabeth of Austria); Kitty und die grosse Welt (Wiedermann)
Sissi—die junge Kaiserin (Marischka) (as Empress Elisabeth of Austria); Robinson soll nicht sterben (The Girl and the Legend) (von Baky) (as Maud); Monpti (Käutner)
Sissi—Schichsalsjahre einer Kaiserin (Marischka—edited version of the three Sissi films released as Forever My Love, 1962) (as Empress Elisabeth of Austria); Scampolo (Wiedermann); Mädchen in Uniform (Radvanyi) (as Manuela von Mainhardis)
Die schöne Lügnerin (von Ambesser); Die Halbzart (Thiele); Christine (Gaspard-Huit) (title role); Ein Engel auf Erden (Angel on Earth) (Radvanyi) (as air stewardess/guardian angel)
Katia (Magnificent Sinner) (Siodmak) (title role); Plein soleil (Purple Noon; Lust for Evil) (Clément)
Le Combat dans l'île (Cavalier); Die Sendung der Lysistrata (Kortner)
Le Procès (The Trial) (Welles) (as Leni); "Il lavoro" ("The Job") ep. of Boccaccio '70 (Visconti) (as Pupe)
The Victors (Foreman) (as Regine); The Cardinal (Preminger) (as Annemarie)
Good Neighbor Sam (Swift) (as Janet Lagerhof)
What's New Pussycat? (Donner) (as Carole Werner)
La Voleuse (Schornstein No. 4) (Chapot); 10.30 P.M. Summer (Dassin) (as Claire); Triple Cross (Young) (as the Countess)
Otley (Dick Clement) (as Imogen)
La Piscine (The Swimming Pool) (Deray) (as Marianne)
My Lover, My Son (Newland) (as Francesca Anderson); Qui? (The Sensuous Assassin) (Keigel); Les Choses de la Vie (The Things of Life) (Sautet) (as Hélène)
La califfa (Bevilacqua); Max et les ferrailleurs (Sautet); Bloomfield (The Hero) (Harris)
César et Rosalie (Sautet); The Assassination of Trotsky (Losey)
Ludwig (Ludwig: Twilight of the Gods) (Visconti) (as Empress Elisabeth of Austria); Le Train (Granier-Deferre); Le Trio infernal (The Infernal Trio) (Girod) (as Philomene)
Un Amour de pluie (Loving in the Rain) (Brialy); Le Mouton enragé (Love at the Top; The French Way) (Deville)
L'Important c'est d'aimer (The Most Important Thing Is Love) (Zulawski); Les Innocents aux mains sales (Dirty Hands) (Chabrol); Le Vieux Fusil (The Old Gun) (Enrico)
Une Femme à sa fenêtre (A Woman at Her Window) (Granier-Deferre) (as Margot)
Gruppenbild mit Dame (Group Picture with Lady) (Petrović)
Mado (Sautet) (as Helene); Une Histoire simple (A Simple Story) (Sautet) (as Marie)
Last Embrace (Demme); Bloodline (Young); Clair de femme (Costa-Gavras) (as Lydia); Lo sconosciuto; La Mort en direct (Deathwatch) (Tavernier) (as Katherine Mortonhoe)
Garde à Vue (Under Suspicion) (Miller) (as Chantal Martinaud); La Banquière (Girod)
Fantasma d'amore (Ghost of Love) (Risi) (as Anna); La Passante du Sans-Souci (La Passante) (Rouffio) (as Elsa Weiner/Lina Baumenstein)
By SCHNEIDER: book—
Ich, Romy, Munich, 1988.
On SCHNEIDER: books—
Benichou, Pierre, and Sylviane Pommier, Romy Schneider, Paris, 1976.
Knef, Hildegard, Romy: Betrachtung eines Lebens, Hamburg, 1983.
Arnould, Françoise, and Françoise Gerber, Romy Schneider, Princesse de l'écran, Paris, 1985.
Hermary-Vieille, Catherine, Romy, Paris, 1986.
Steenfatt, Margret, Eine gemachte Frau: Die Lebengeschichte der Romy Schneider, Hamburg, 1986.
Seydel, Renate, Romy Schneider: Bilder ihres Lebens, Munich, 1987.
Cohen, Georges, Romy Schneider, Paris, 1988.
Romy Schneider: Portraits 1954–1981, text by Schygulla, Hanna. Munich, 1988.
Riess, Curt, Romy Schneider, Rastatt, 1990.
Yuji yaku, Segawa, Romi shunaida: koi hitosuji ni, Tokyo, 1991.
On SCHNEIDER: articles—
Haustrate, Gaston, "Romy Schneider," in Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1982.
Elley, Derek, "Romy Schneider," in Films and Filming (London), August 1982.
Tavernier, Bertrand, obituary, in Positif (Paris), February 1986.
Stars (Mariembourg), June 1989.
Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), July 1991.
Seesslen, Georg, "Eine Geschichte vom Mädchen, das Frau werden wollte," in EPD Film (Frankfurt/Main), May 1992.
Cegielkówna, Iwona, "Romy Schneider: okruchy zycia," in Iluzjon (Warsaw), July-December 1992.
* * *
Born into an old established and famous theatrical family, Romy Schneider was almost predestined to become an actress. As an internationally known German film star, she is second in fame only to Marlene Dietrich. Like Dietrich, she had an ambiguous relationship to Germany and chose not to live there.
Schneider's screen debut, at the age of 14, was alongside her mother Magda Schneider, in Wenn der weisse Flieder wieder blüht. This led to further film offers and to playing the saccharine-sweet eponymous heroine in the trilogy Sissi, a kitsch bio-pic of Elisabeth, the Austrian Empress. As Sissi, Schneider had become the darling of the German speaking public. Ute Schneider suggests that the Sissi films provided a safety valve for Germans in their inability to mourn (i.e. the collective disavowal of the fascist past): "Hardly any other 1950s tearjerker film had been more effective in letting the audience sob their heart out. It is a pertinent example of the continuing repression of political reality that can be traced in [German] entertainment cinema. Sissi demonstrated yet again the victory of the heart over the 'evil' of politics, the dream of conquering people and countries with no more than a feminine smile and maternal care." The role of Sissi typecast Schneider for the early part of her career and she came to hate the image, but was haunted by it for the rest of her life.
Her engagement to Alain Delon seems to have given her enough determination to leave for France, escaping parental control and the smothering Sissi image (although initially she continued to be type-cast). Nevertheless, Schneider's first serious role came from the German director Fritz Kortner, as Myrrhine in Kortner's adaptation of Aristophanes's Die Sendung der Lysistrata. Then in Paris Visconti offered Schneider her first theater engagement, in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Despite having to act in French, she won audience and critical acclaim. It also marked the beginning of her international career as a character actress. Subsequently, Schneider gained a major prize for her performance in Welles's Le Procès and Visconti cast her again in Boccaccio '70. Following a brief interlude in Hollywood, playing in Preminger's The Cardinal, and demonstrating her ability for comedy alongside Jack Lemmon in Good Neighbor Sam, and Peter Sellers and Peter O'Toole in What's New, Pussycat?, Schneider returned to France. Subsequently, while working with the director Claude Sautet and with Michel Piccoli as her film partner, Schneider embarked on the most fruitful period of her career. Sautet cast her in a range of roles, playing the modern sexually liberated woman. Having created a new persona, Schneider had the courage to accept again the role of Elisabeth in Visconti's Ludwig. She depicted the woman as cold and unyielding, thereby erasing any trace of the sweet Sissi character.
Over the years Schneider achieved success in her career by great discipline and ambition. She stated frankly that she used her classical beauty as a handmaiden in the service of her craft. Despite Schneider's professional emancipation and her rebellion against the values of her parents' generation, she cannot be considered a feminist, even in the widest sense. She mostly played women as perceived from a typical male position: the housewife, the mother, the mistress or the whore. She rarely depicted independent professional women, but rather came to represent those women who revolt, only to settle eventually for compromise.
Even while in France, however, she deliberately chose roles that critically engaged with Germany's fascist history, albeit from a French perspective. La Passante du Sans-Souci, a French-German co-production, is a striking case in point, since the film illustrates differing national perspectives on recent history. The German version has a happy end, whereas in the French the couple are killed by the neo-Nazis. Another pertinent example is the German film Gruppenbild mit Dame (based on Heinrich Böll's sociohistorical critique of Germany). Schneider could strongly identify with her role of Leni, a woman misunderstood in her own country. Though the film was dismissed by the critics (lacking the complexity of the novel), Schneider won an important German prize for her performance.
Towards the end, Romy Schneider knew both sadness and tragedy. After serious kidney surgery and her divorce from her second husband, her young son, David Christophe, was killed climbing over his own front gate. Although she threw herself into her work, the pressure and stress proved too much and Romy Schneider died of heart failure a year later.