Understatement that Overwhelms
On January 30, 1889, the bodies of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Rudolf, and his lover, Maria Vetsera, were discovered in an Imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling. The exact nature of the incident will likely never be known. Too much time has passed; too much of the evidence is lost forever. However, the official story became that Rudolf, in a fit of mania and perhaps as the result of a lover’s pact, took Maria’s life and subsequently his own.
The Mayerling Incident, as it is generally called, has been the source of a great deal of speculation both in reference to the truth of the events (the evidence gathered from the remains of Rudolf and Maria contradict the official story) and with respect to the impact the death of Rudolf may have had on the unraveling (more directly as a result of World War I) of the Austrian Empire. Shrouded in mystery and intrigue, the Mayerling lodge (converted almost immediately after the event into a convent) remains a favorite destination for curious visitors to Vienna and its environs.
Despite the fact that the forensic evidence appears to give the lie to the official story, it is the notion of the lovers engaging in a suicide pact that (at least initially) seems to fuel the curiosity of those interested in the incident. And it is Anatole Litvak’s 1936 filmic rendition of Claude Anet’s Idyll’s End, a romantic novelization of the event, that best captures the rarefied atmosphere of fated love that the Mayerling Incident embodies for so many.
Anet’s approach to the story was to strip away most of the political intrigue in order to focus on the overwhelming intoxication the lovers felt in each other’s presence. Litvak goes the author one better inasmuch as Litvak, unlike Anet, is not hemmed in by the written word. We are not, in Litvak’s film, privy to the thoughts of the characters; we receive very little in the way of explanation or justification for actions and feelings. We are, however, witness to the acts themselves. We see Rudolf and Maria as they meet and fall in love. We bear witness to the seeming inevitability of their desire for each other.
Litvak’s great achievement in this film was to transfer thought and emotion to the purely visual. The first essential step in accomplishing this was through casting the leads. Charles Boyer exudes the disaffection and malaise that Archduke Rudolf feels in his courtly existence. Boyer’s eyes almost always seem clouded over to the point that he appears to be looking at nothing at all. But once he catches sight of Maria those same eyes begin to see too much. His love for her causes him to see through the petty debaucheries and the ineffectual political ambitions of his life. This is made most evident in the scene at the ballet when Rudolf sees through the performance and remembers his first encounter with Maria at the Prater. As the film progresses, Rudolf sees further into the great Beyond, into the same heady combination of sexual ecstasy and death that haunts the tale of Tristan and Isolde.
Indeed, it is this romanticized nihilism of vision that ultimately refutes one of the criticisms often lodged against Litvak’s film. A renowned leftist, Litvak was supposedly drawn to the script because of its depictions of the struggles between the conservative authoritarianism of Emperor Franz Joseph’s regime and the enlightened republicanism of Prince Rudolf. However, the political undercurrents of the film serve only as an introduction to Rudolf’s character and seem to have little impact on the trajectory of the film as a whole.
But this criticism misses the entire point of Litvak’s feint. In Litvak’s Schopenhaurian conception of the love story, politics is just another element of what Schopenhauer called “Wahn”—the needless turmoil of bodily existence that the person seeking peace must quell. Rudolf seeks fulfillment and eternity with his love and he decides that such eternity can only be sought in the dark passage of death.
Perhaps no casting choice could have been more remarkably suitable than placing Danielle Darrieux in the role of Maria Vetsera. Darrieux had the ability to register turbulent emotion with the smallest shifts in what first strikes the viewer as an impassive demeanor. Her supple, pale flesh (captured with such delicacy by the camera), the child-like innocence of her stare (she was only 17 when Mayerling was filmed), the charm of her voice (the sweet chirping of her carefully articulated French will allure even those most resistant to the blandishments of that language) all contribute to the overwhelming power of her performance.
For those familiar with the film, the phrase “overwhelming power” might seem odd. Darrieux’s performance here is not of the kind we generally associate with the virtuoso female lead. There are no histrionics, no grand gestures, no impassioned monologues.
But it is precisely in this lack of the familiar trappings of such virtuosity that Darrieux manages to captivate her audience in such a remarkable fashion. She gives herself over entirely to the visual. In a film that lavishes so much attention to the opulent details of courtly display, to the careful reproduction of nineteenth-century ballet, to the heightened lasciviousness of the Prince’s debauches, Darrieux’s performance is a study in understatement. However, her ability to do so much while remaining so passively statuesque reveals a force that few screen actors have demonstrated since. This is understatement that overwhelms.
As the film moves toward its final moment, the two characters look at each other with utter love and complete trust. Their very assurance that they have only one option open to them is what makes the tragic ending seem so right despite the fact that the viewer can have no real desire to see them die. In their final moments together, they seem to have pushed beyond the bounds of this world into that ethereal vision that revealed itself to them upon their first encounter.
In the end, the film becomes about that intense vision, the desperate desire one must feel to attain it, and the cost one pays to enter into it. A study in romantic nihilism, Mayerling captivates by transmuting the acceptance of death into the ultimate proof of love.