The quiet girl and the unquiet empress

If it’s still in the theaters, go see “The Quiet Girl.” (Or rent it on Amazon Prime.)  It should have won the Oscar for best international film.  I also saw the winner, “All Quiet on the Western Front.”  Yes, it is a well-done lesson on the horrors of war, but in “The Quiet Girl” we experience how much love can heal … and hurt.  Last night I read the novella on which it is based, Foster, by Claire Keegan. The experiences of the book and the movie were so powerful that it’s too soon to write any more about them.

Rather, I want to talk about the wife of the Emperor Franz Joseph, the last Habsburg emperor who ruled Austria-Hungary during World War I, the subject of the film that won the Oscar.  The Netflix series “The Empress” is about early years in the life of Empress Elisabeth..  She’s having somewhat of a popular revival with a French movie about her (“Corsage”) and another series streaming on PBS Passport, a German production titled “Sisi: Austrian Empress.”

Sisi, as she was called, was a free spirit who stole the heart of Franz Joseph from his intended betrothed, her older sister.  When she became Empress, she flouted court protocol to the chagrin of her mother-in-law, the formidable Archduchess Sophie, who also snatched care of Sisi’s children from her.  Sisi and Franz Joseph were married for more than 40 years until her assassination by an Italian anarchist in 1898.

Before Franz Joseph entered her life, Sisi resisted her parents’ attempts to arrange suitable husbands.  In the first episode of the Netflix series, the young Sisi takes off on her horse to escape meeting such a suitor.  Unfortunately she drives the horse through such rough terrain that it falls and breaks its leg.

In the stable afterwards, Sisi’s father tries to get her to shoot the horse to put it out of its misery.  Sisi can’t do it.  After her father does, he quotes a passage from the poet Heinrich Heine.

Der Tod, der trennet nicht, der Tod vereinigt,
Das Leben ist’s, was uns gewaltsam trennt.

Death does not divide, death unites
It’s life that violently separates us.

If he thought that would console a distraught Sisi, he was wrong.

Despite this context, the quotation intrigued me because it seemed to resonate with one of the themes of this blog: open, close, open, and with the way that I see death as opening.  When I searched for the source of this quote in English, I found many other lines from Heine concerning death, but not this one.  When I searched for the German, I couldn’t find any English translations of the works cited.  Finally, I found that it came from Heine’s play Almansor, not from some poem.  No English translations of the play, but I was able to use Google Translate to render this section of an online German text of the play.

Searching for more information on the play, I found out why translations were so hard to find.  It was an early work of Heine’s, a really bad play that even Heine wanted to forget.  It’s the story of two lovers in the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella, shortly after the Muslims were driven out.  It’s the typical romantic impossible love with one a Muslim and the other a devout Christian.  This passage comes from a dialogue between the two lovers where they are debating suicide as a way out of their troubles.  The intent of the statement is that the lovers will be united in death since they are separated in life.

Sisi’s father also uses it to value death over life, to justify killing the horse.  So, despite its superficial resemblance, Heine’s sentiment is exactly the opposite of Amichai’s poem, which affirms life opening out at death, beginning with its very title “I Wasn’t One of the Six Million: And What Is My Life Span? Open Closed Open.


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