Test footage from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished L’Enfer (1964)
ACCORDING TO IMDB, there are no less than twenty print biographies of the actress Romy Schneider, sixteen of which are in German, four in French, and zero in English. At this point Schneider is barely known in America, though her beauty used to be world-renowned. Alain Delon, one of French cinema’s greatest male beauties, had a long running on- and off-screen affair with Schneider, and in 2009 he told the French newspaper Le Provence that Romy was the love of his life. Schneider’s movie stardom arced across three distinct periods: teenaged German ingenue turned overnight national icon; all-purpose Euro superstar on jet-setting international co-productions; and, finally, worldly grand dame of French cinema, her hair pulled severely back from her face. Yet even or especially at the end of her career, Schneider remained a kind of living toy, a fetish doll that directors, costume designers and makeup artists delighted in dressing up and re-painting. And thus it seems apropos that Schneider is perhaps most recognizable today not for a particular role or performance but for posing in test footage for a film that was never actually finished.
L’Enfer is a story of deranged jealousy that became a kind of obsession for its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, a project he could not or would not complete; after years of protracted development and glacial, budget-busting production, the shoot was definitively halted following the director’s heart attack. In the reels and reels of color tests that have emerged from that aborted project, Schneider seems game for anything asked of her. Her tiny kitty face is lathered in olive oil and dusted with glitter as a whirling succession of colored lights psychedelically rotate across her skin. She lasciviously sticks her tongue out so that it spreads against a clear glass frame, as if she were licking the movie screen itself. She throws her head back and smokes in a highly sexual manner. She even plays naughty with a slinky, letting it slither across her pulsating body.
Schneider looks almost embarrassingly pliable on camera here, but off-screen, she was demanding and self-protective. When the irascible Clouzot yelled at her, she yelled right back; power fluctuated between actress and director. At one point in the test footage, Clouzot comes up behind Schneider, who is dressed as a bride, and “playfully” strangles her. Yet in these potent fragments, it is Schneider, with her offhand sexual glamour, who seems to be in control.
Left Karlheinz Böhm and Schneider in Sissi (1955)
Right Alain Delon and Schneider in the Luchino Visconti stage production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1960)
SCHNEIDER’S MOTHER MAGDA was an accomplished actress in German films, having played the lead in director Max Ophuls’s early masterpiece Liebelei (1932). Vienna-born Romy made her debut, at age fifteen, in one of Magda’s films, Wenn der weibe Flieder wieder blüht (1953), in which the young actress is a picture of fresh-faced, natural charisma. This quality would be capitalized on in Sissi (1955), a well-made, candy-colored comedy where Schneider played a romanticized Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Sissi was such an enormous hit that it led to two sequels, and this popular trilogy would define Schneider’s image for some time, and in many ways, for all time. The Sissi films are still shown on TV every year during Christmas in Germany and several other European countries, and she remains an icon in Germany due to their continuing exposure. Though very light, the Sissi films aren’t to be scoffed at; as pure escapism, they can hardly be bettered, and Schneider plays them with happy, impulsive sincerity and glowing high spirits.
Yet almost immediately, Schneider started to work against her wholesome image, playing the part of a student in love with her female teacher in a 1958 remake of the lesbian love classic Mädchen in Uniform (1931). It was a highly subversive piece of casting that pays off, for Schneider limns her character’s forbidden love with all the warmth and eagerness she gave to Sissi. That same year, she headlined a remake of Liebelei called Christine, playing opposite the studly and taciturn Delon, with whom she fell in love off-camera and began a major affair. Christine is not anywhere near the quality of the Ophuls original; it’s a fatally reticent film, but that’s easy to overlook when Schneider and Delon are together on screen. They’re both catlike, but she’s a cat that will crawl into your lap right away, whereas he’s clearly un-pettable.
Romy does sex-kitten in the Luchino Visconti episode of Boccaccio ’70 (1961)
Schneider left Germany behind to live with Delon in France, where she visited him on the set of Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960). The Italian maestro Visconti was so taken with her beauty that he decided to play mentor, directing her first on stage in a production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and then in a short film, Il lavoro (The Job), for the omnibus movie Boccaccio ’70 (1961). This is a crucial pivot in Schneider’s career, the first time that a major director really showcases her. We initially discover her character spread out on the floor of her bedroom in a Chanel suit, a small grey cat by her side, the pastel décor of the room perfectly setting off her light pink clothing. Schneider’s young wife postures and dramatizes herself, so that she’s like a little girl playacting the part of a sophisticated woman (she was still only 24 at the time).
Visconti seems to indulge himself visually by framing a close-up of her feline face next to two actual kittens, one grey one and one white. But the director is setting a narrative trap here. He films Schneider as many of her directors did, with pleasure at her beauty and the many ways it can be presented, but as this rich young wife undresses and then dresses again, and speaks of wanting to get a job, Visconti slowly makes you realize how clueless and powerless she is. A sense of entitlement and privilege animates every move she makes, yet we come to feel how trapped this girl is, both in her luxurious apartment and the film itself. Even as she orders her servants around, she gradually comes to realize her status as a useless bauble, and ultimately she suggests that her husband pay her for sex; he agrees, and the film ends on a close-up of her tear-stained face as she waits for him in bed. This is a very angry movie about class and sexual power, and it is also a movie partly about Schneider’s ambiguous position as a woman who lets herself be looked at.
The following year, Schneider was sensitively directed by Orson Welles in an adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. As Leni, a perverted assistant to a law advocate played by Welles himself, Schneider is slightly Sissi-esque in her impishness, but there’s something diamond-hard and Dietrich-like about her here, too, in manner and intonation. “Has she got any…physical defect?” Leni asks Joseph K (Anthony Perkins), when he speaks of Frau Burstner (Jeanne Moreau), the hooker who lives next door to him. “I’ve got a physical defect!” Leni cries, “I’ll show you, come on!” She runs into another room and throws herself onto some abandoned books, and Welles frames her hand in close-up as Joseph stares at it. “Look! Skin between my two middle fingers, like a web!” she boasts, girlishly. The way Schneider lingers over the words “physical defect” and shows off her webbed hand here is more mysteriously and truly erotic than any of her many nude scenes on film. After they hesitantly kiss, Leni says, “It bothers me that you don’t like me more than you do,” then sensually bites his chin. Schneider flowers under Welles’s sympathetic attention; he frames her face in stark black and white compositions so that it looks beautiful but also forbidding.
She next worked wonders for Otto Preminger, whose The Cardinal (1963) is either stupefying or masterfully neutral, depending on your auteurist leanings, but it’s unquestionable that Schneider is at her best in it as a girl in love with a priest (Tom Tryon). Sharp and good-humored, Schneider’s avid Annemarie brings the movie to life periodically, and in her last scene, behind bars in jail, her face is alive with bright, lacerating self-knowledge.
As an embittered adult Sissi in Visconti’s Ludwig (1972)
AT THIS POINT, Delon broke up with her, and this made her very unhappy. What followed was her least distinguished period. She tried comedy, first in Good Neighbor Sam (1964) with Jack Lemmon and then What’s New Pussycat? (1965), the first film appearance of Woody Allen. Those movies made clear that Schneider’s impulsive mannerisms, which had been so charming in German, looked strenuous and even ungainly when she spoke English. She lent thankless support to a Melina Mercouri vehicle, 10:30 P.M. Summer (1966), and idled in undistinguished films before Delon had her play opposite him in a sexy drama, The Swimming Pool (1969), where the one-time exquisite young lovers of Christine looked tanned and jaded and spent most of the movie in bathing suits while eying each other warily.
Schneider’s career was revived in 1970 when she made the first of five films with Claude Sautet, Les choses de la vie, playing Michel Piccoli’s sumptuously beautiful mistress. Her work rate accelerated: she completed 27 films from 1970 to 1982, many of which are little known in the US. Among the more seeable movies, she re-teamed with Delon in a poor Joseph Losey film, The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), and then Visconti came to her rescue again and offered her the chance to be a grown-up Sissi for his stately, mournful royal epic Ludwig (1972). In that film, Schneider plays the Empress as the unhappy, spoiled, narcissistic woman she was in real life, and her performance is held together by a quiet anger that feels very personal. She showed off her increasingly weathered sexiness in The Train (1974), then stuck her sharpest knife into her 1950s Sissi image in Le Trio infernal (1974), where she helps Piccoli dispose of a corpse by dissolving it in sulfuric acid.
Schneider gives everything she has to give to The Important Thing is to Love (1975)
Nothing that came before was adequate preparation, though, for what she accomplished in Andrzej Zulawski’s The Important Thing is to Love (1975). As Nadine Chevalier, an actress who has been reduced to softcore porn films, Schneider plays most of her scenes with little make-up and she opens herself to the camera so that we can sense just how exhausted she is; you can see her pores in most of her scenes, as her face gets covered in sweat, or tears, or rain. In some of her ‘70s films, Schneider just shows up in her glamorous clothes and says her lines, and it seems like her mind is elsewhere. As Nadine, Schneider can be opaque, but she also lets us enter into her vulnerabilities; her face is often candid, expectant, but all too often it is so weary that she seems capable of murder or suicide. Burnt-out, ill-tempered, Nadine knows that she has missed her chance to be a real actress, and she’s mired in the belief that it was just bad luck that did her in. “No one tried harder,” she tells an actor (Klaus Kinski) during rehearsal for a disastrous production of Richard III. “No one tried to give more.”
When Nadine has a huge freak-out in a café and screams at her ineffectual husband (Jacques Dutronc), Schneider arrives at the emotion organically, so that it doesn’t seem worked-up or controlled or pushed for us; it’s the real thing, and it commands respect. When Nadine lurches at an admirer (Fabio Testi) and starts to smack him as hard as she can, Schneider is frightening because she’s really hitting him, really feeling all of Nadine’s anger and her own, which is informing and creating it. Schneider doesn’t really give “a performance” in the accepted sense in this movie. She has been in front of the camera for so long that she has decided not to notice it’s even there, and she doesn’t give a damn how she looks. In this film, Schneider is one of the few performers who puts the calm of severe depression on the screen in an unvarnished state, without surface histrionics. This is magnificent work, pure as the sunlight that hits her face in the last moment of the film, when she says, “I love you” and tries to mean it.
Schneider and long-time lover Alain Delon in The Swimming Pool (1969)
AFTER THAT SUMMIT, which won Schneider a Cesar award, she fronted a rather nasty thriller for Claude Chabrol, Innocents with Dirty Hands (1975), and was one of the all-star cast in Bloodline (1979), a blot on the resume of everyone involved. The poster for Bertrand Tavernier’s sci-fi Death Watch (1980) featured Schneider’s face at the top of an hourglass, with a tagline above that reads, “She’s the target of every eye…including eyes only science can create,” and that summed up her position as a woman who had been looked at by cameras until it seemed like parts of her soul had started to disappear. Her personal life at this point was not a happy one. Two marriages failed, and in 1981, her young son David was impaled and killed trying to climb a fence. After his death, Schneider retreated into herself and drank heavily. Her friend Simone Signoret suggested that she return to work to get her mind off her loss, and so she made one more film, La passante du Sans-Souci (1982).
There are bits of that last Schneider film on YouTube. In one scene, she stares at a young boy with tears in her eyes. In another scene, she rescues a young boy who has been beaten by thugs. In both of those scenes, and an interview done shortly after shooting was completed, Schneider is so sad-eyed and confused that it’s difficult to watch her, but watch her I did, because she was someone who offered to be watched, and at her best she made us ask tough questions about what that entailed, both for her and for us. She died of a heart attack, and so of course you will find lots of writing on the internet that says she died of a “broken heart,” and that’s not necessarily wrong, but she spent the best part of her working life resisting such clichés.
In Germany, her image as Sissi is as durable as ever and shows no sign of flagging, no matter that she made so many other disturbing and adult films, including one where she offered a more truthful depiction of the Austrian empress. Delon took charge of her funeral and made sure that her son was buried with her. Speaking to Le Provence in 2009, Delon said, “I would not have wanted to see her at age 70.” At 43, in her last film, Schneider’s eyes seemed older than 70. As Dietrich says of Welles in Touch of Evil (1958), she was all used up, and almost done being looked at. Delon told Le Provence, “I took three pictures of her on her deathbed that I always carry with me. I have not shown the pictures to anyone else.”
Dan Callahan is an Editor for Alt Screen.
“Romy Schneider: Empress of the Screen” is playing at French Institute Alliance Française, May 1st to June 26th.