If you’re still pining for the splendor and drama of ITV’s Victoria series, Netflix’s new German historical drama The Empress is the perfect substitute. Set in the mid-19th century, The Empress explores the relationship between sixteen-year-old Duchess Elisabeth “Sisi” von Wittelsbach (Devrim Lingnau) and Franz Joseph I of Austria (Philip Froissant) as she finds herself thrust into the complex and duplicitous court politics made worse by her new husband’s mother, Princess Sophie of Bavaria (Melika Foroutan), and brother Archduke Maximilian (Johannes Nussbaum).
From the first episode, there is no doubt that The Empress was created by Katharina Eyssen who has crafted a series that is equal measures a coming-of-age romance for the young Duchess, and a tale filled with political intrigue and the rumbles of a growing rebellion. The series’ directors Florian Cossen and Katrin Gebbe shape Elisabeth’s life with a delicate grace, showcasing the naïveté that comes from being only sixteen years old, while carefully presenting the small horrors in her life. The Empress doesn’t shy away from the intrusive nature of stone-faced physicians performing chastity inspections, the disappointment Elisabeth feels in being faced with her new husband’s former lover at their wedding, and the stifling subjugation of her new life in Vienna.
Devrim Lingnau is a breath of fresh air as Elisabeth, playing her with a level of nuance that will undoubtedly bring devastation if The Empress runs its course through to her tragic end in 1898. She is truly just a rambunctious teenager whose only cares are freedom, poetry, and her horse before she catches the eye of Franz when he’s meant to be courting her sister Helene (Elisa Schlott). She was never raised to become the Empress, it was something that blossomed from unexpected love, and altered the course of not only her own life but the fate of Austria. You feel for her, even when you know that the Hapsburgs are hanging their opposition.
Her romance with Franz is also quite fun to see explored within the series, because it isn’t perfect by any measure, but there is never any shortage of chemistry between Lingnau and Froissant. Franz has his own struggles to face throughout the series, namely the increasing tensions between Austria and Russia, and the impending conflict. But there are other conflicts he is forced to face, which are much closer than the border—including his brother Maximilian who is determined to undermine him, sow seeds of dissension, and position himself in a place to overtake the throne.
The costuming of The Empress is a sumptuous feast for the eyes; from the intricate dresses worn by Elisabeth, to the exquisite details of the gentleman’s refined wardrobe and military regalia. Gabrielle Reumer, the series’ costume designer, has a keen eye for not only layering colors and textures to convey deeper meaning in each scene and episode but to explore the full breadth of what Austrians were wearing during the period. So often historical productions will limit themselves to drab, lifeless colors and patterns, failing to recognize just how vibrant the aristocracy dressed. With The Empress, these dramatic sparks of color and ostentatious designs stand in stark contrast with the rebellion brewing beyond the palace gates.
But the rebellion has also found its way into the palace, presenting a unique opportunity for one of Elisabeth’s ladies in waiting, Leontine von Apafi (Almila Bagriacik) to become her close confidant and greatest adversary. Leontine sees first-hand that the newly-minted Empress is not an enemy of the people, but rather a pawn to those that control every aspect of her life. But even still, it doesn’t fully dissuade her of her Machiavellian plans. It’s the kind of duplicitous storytelling that lays the groundwork for even more intrigue in the prospective second season.
Fans of historical dramas will want to make time for The Empress, as its first season is truly a magnificently crafted program. It pays great respect to the memory of Elisabeth and Franz, while crafting a bingeworthy series that easily sweeps its audience up in the drama and grandeur of a tumultuous period in history. The series does a decent job of laying out the key points of tension between its cast of characters, ensuring that audiences both intimately familiar with the Habsburgs and those searching for their new favorite historical drama will enjoy their journey into 19th century Austria. Elisabeth’s humanity and empathy are the centerfold of The Empress, presenting her as a character—and real-life figure—that audiences can easily relate to as she is forced into a world she only just understands.
As with all foreign language programs on Netflix, if you have the ability to watch with subtitles in your own first language, I would strongly insist on watching The Empress in its original German with subtitles. The English dub pales in comparison to listening to the cast speak in their own tongue and tell the story as it was intended.