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Vicky Krieps plays the rebellious Empress Elisabeth in new period film 'Corsage'

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

You don't have to be a fan of period dramas to be drawn into a new film in theaters now called "Corsage." It's about the empress of Austria in the late 1870s. She wears a crown of fiery red braids. She's known for her beauty. But as she approaches her 40th birthday, she wants to rebel. Vicky Krieps plays Empress Elisabeth in the film, and she joins us now from Berlin, Germany. Thanks for being with us.

VICKY KRIEPS: Hello.

ESTRIN: You know, Vicky, I looked up a black-and-white photo of the real-life Empress Elisabeth of Austria from the mid-1800s. And it's amazing. You look just like her. What drew you to her character?

KRIEPS: Well, I think it's many things, but it goes back to being a teenager in Luxembourg, where I lived quite freely with my parents, and especially my mother, who taught me to be a free girl and, you know, not to live up to the princess image. But then maybe because I had this different backdrop when I discovered there were these films from the '50s about Empress Elisabeth. And in Europe, every Christmas you watched the films. It's like a tradition. And I knew the films, but, you know, I was always kind of suspicious, I think, of the princess image. But I loved the dresses like every other girl. And then at 15, I read her biography. It just left me puzzled, really. It left me with a feeling of dissatisfaction and, you know, not knowing who she really was and sensing some sort of darkness, really, behind the veil.

ESTRIN: You know, she's not a very familiar historical figure in the U.S., I guess, as much as she is in Europe. What was this empress's role? Was she just the wife of the emperor? Did she have power of her own?

KRIEPS: I mean, I think that is really what she suffered from. She was really married into this very powerful, very restrictive - they were famous at the time, the Habsburg family, you know, the royal family from Austria, especially the man she married was the son of a woman who was super traditional, who became her - almost like her controller. She would always wait for her at 5 p.m. with a big book in her hand where she wrote down every mistake she made in the day, you know. So coming from a rather rural castle in the countryside. But then she came to this very, very royal house and had to be the perfect puppet. She really had to sit and be beautiful and shut up.

ESTRIN: Wow. It's amazing you call her a puppet. And, you know, early on in the film, you are swept up into this world of the 1800s. You see the empress at the center of attention at a ceremony. And suddenly, she faints. Soon we learn that, actually, she was faking that. But you see your character climbing the stairs. And the main theme song comes in by a French songwriter, Camille.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE WAS")

CAMILLE: (Singing) She was an owl. I saw her swaying in the sky. And she died inside my arms. I realized she was a cat. Go.

ESTRIN: It's this very contemporary, brooding song. And I think your character looks right into the camera, doesn't she?

KRIEPS: Yeah. That's something that Marie wanted to establish right away.

ESTRIN: Yeah. That's Marie Kreutzer, the director of "Corsage."

KRIEPS: The audience should know that this is going to go a different way and that she's going to take over her own story. You know, this is a character that you see almost leave the fourth wall between the audience and the film. It's almost as if she's climbing out of the screen. She's saying, you know, I'm leaving my role even as the character, you know. And it's also saying, what if the person you all look at looks back? I mean, you all agree that I'm famous, and now you're watching me and you're talking about me and you're judging me and you're saying that I gained weight and that I lost weight and that I'm difficult and all these things. I think the character in the film is trying to escape this and trying to wake people up in their very conventional ways of seeing things.

ESTRIN: Talk about the title of the film, "Corsage." I mean, in the U.S., of course, is the flower you wear on your wrist at prom. But what does corsage mean in this context?

KRIEPS: I think the whole movie is to talk about the corset this woman was wearing physically and as a part of her costume or her dress, but also the corset that they were making her wear as the empress, which are the rules and the...

ESTRIN: Everything she was expected to do.

KRIEPS: Yeah, she was expected to do. And this again, we use - and that is why we have the modern music and everything is to talk about modern women and how we still wear this corset, even if we don't realize, you know, unconsciously we are still a slave to this idea of having to please.

ESTRIN: And we see you being laced up in a corset in the film over and over. It's this impossibly tight dress.

KRIEPS: Yeah.

ESTRIN: What did it feel like to wear a corset in the film?

KRIEPS: You wouldn't wear it for one minute, I guarantee you. It's just so utterly painful. I mean, I would never do it again. And I really, really think it was a mistake. I mean, what is a mistake, really? You do it and you do what you do. I wanted to do a good job. I wanted to be a good actress. I said, well, she was wearing it. But, of course, we didn't think of how many hours I would wear it. You know, if you make a movie, you work for 12, 14 hours. And you never sit down.

ESTRIN: Oh, my gosh. So you wore it for days and days on end?

KRIEPS: Yeah, because I couldn't get out of it. If I would get out of it, I couldn't get back in. You know, and this feels really painful on on the level of the soul because you feel even my bones aren't right. You know, my bones are in the way. I am in the way of the idea of the fashion or of the idea, the shape I'm supposed to have.

ESTRIN: Wow. I want to ask you about, you know, there's a Netflix series now about the empress called "The Empress." You mentioned the film that people have grown up watching about the empress. What keeps pulling people to tell her story on film?

KRIEPS: I don't know. I think all these films are out now is a coincidence because I had this idea 2015. And when we first pitched it, people were like, you're crazy. This is - no one is interested in an empress. So I guess it's whatever you call it, coincidence or zeitgeist. I think why we are drawn to these people is because they're also this perfect image of a woman and, like, statuettes, like portraits. You can't imagine them more perfect. And I think that is why we made our movie to say they are not more perfect. They're the opposite. They're maybe even less perfect. They're just human.

ESTRIN: Vicky Krieps stars in the new movie "Corsage." Vicky, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KRIEPS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.