Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Maria Theresa: a miniseries

Last night, after an exhausting social day, I had an insightful and amusing chat with an extraordinary physicist and man. I won't tell you who he was but some of the discussions were about the relationship between the amplituhedron and postulates of quantum mechanics. ;-) Among other consequences, I had to delay watching Maria Theresa, an ambitious 2-episode miniseries about our glorious empress.

A trailer

I just watched the first episode which was originally aired last night and I found it very entertaining and impressive. The film was created in the coproduction of all four major successor states of Austria-Hungary – of Czechia, Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia. (The empire may also be called Czechoaustrohungaroslovakia. Apologies to Slovenes and others that they weren't include. If you care, all the Austrian-Hungarian film people were communicating in English – which has apparently replaced German as the main lingua franca of the Austrian Empire LOL.)

In practice, the Czech actors and filmmakers did most of the work – and I guess that the Austrians have paid most of the budget which was about $6 million. That's a generous budget. I think that this is a setup that was successful in the 1980s when lots of wonderful fairy-tales and serials were created in the Czechoslovak-WestGerman coproduction. West Germans would contribute most of the money and Czechs would contribute most of the arts. ;-)

The miniseries bought some 500 wigs, created 2,500 costumes, hired 2,500 supernumeraries. It was in no way a cheap amateurish movie.

Both episodes of the Slovak edition may be watched on YouTube at this moment.

Maria Theresa was born in 1717, i.e. 300+ years ago, and was the only queen in the Czech history. She wasn't just another monarch. She was one of the most important ones. The degree of modernization of our, Habsburg Empire was extraordinary. Famously enough, schoolkids hate her for making their education compulsory.

She has introduced lots of such reforms. For example, postal addresses included numbers for the first time. Previously, houses would only be known as the "House of Two Suns" (a well-known building in Prague's Lesser Town). She robbed the Jesuits of their control over the schools. She has introduced some practical modern firefighting regulations. Serfdom was softened – and later abolished by her son Joseph II in 1781. And so on and so on. The army, schools, bureaucracy, post offices, health care, roads, and other things were immensely modernized, too.

The blockbuster focuses on the interactions between her emotions and politics. When she was a kid, she was assumed to be a standardized aristocratic female – i.e. an automaton that gives birth to male heirs to the throne, like her mother and others. At some moment, we learn that her mother has had some trouble with liver and the medications, in combination with her age above 40, made it unlikely that Maria Theresa would ever get a brother, a proper male heir to the Habsburg throne.

As a kid, she fell in love with Francis I. The adults had very different plans, this duke of Lorraine (a region near Germany that belongs to France now) was considered too weak, and so on. For some time, she was assumed to behave and marry whoever is good politically according to her father and his advisers etc.

But rather early on, we are shown that she decided to learn the detailed political issues in quite some detail – thankfully, she found a loyal professor who taught her what she needed. She was clearly an extraordinary player and after some time, it was her who was dictating the rules of the game. Despite worries that Francis I no longer loved her, they got married, her husband Francis I sacrificed his Lorraine but gained Tuscany instead, a major prince who opposed the marriage (represented by the same Hungarian actor as Joseph Goebbels in the Lída Baarová blockbuster) died at the same moment, and the new royal couple made Europe much more peaceful than what it would be otherwise.

Habsburgs were mocked as being unable to produce boys – she had a sister, Maria Anna, but no brothers and her first three kids were girls, too. But things got better. In total, she gave birth to 16 kids – although 6 of them died as children (the child mortality was clearly very high even in these very rich families). Her first births seemed dramatic and painful so 16 births surely looks like a full-time job. It's sort of incredible that she managed to achieve so many extraordinary reforms and other things in politics.

As Jiří Weigl, a great historian and long-time aide to Czech ex-president Klaus, wrote in an essay (they published a whole booklet about Maria Theresa as seen 300 years after her birth), she was conservative in principle but she understood what her epoch needed, too. Extraordinary women like that are sometimes born. And Maria Theresa not only achieved what she achieved without much affirmative action. She achieved those things in a world where women were – often rightfully – assumed to be just birth automatons.

In this Czech edition of the Austrian-Hungarian anthem, Maria Theresa – who became, along with her Lorraine husband Francis I, the founder of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty – appears at 0:26.

Update: In the second episode, we could see some tension in the relationship between Maria Theresa and her husband – the relaxed Francis I who loved to study the materials of women's underwear. He also introduced some modern technologies to produce clothes into Austria-Hungary. He may have looked like a lowly businessman but he actually earned enough money that the Austrian Empire could spend up to its end in 1918.

Meanwhile, Maria Theresa faced invaders from Prussia as well as France and Bavaria that breached some agreements with Austria. (The Ottoman Empire wasn't a big problem at that time; England was considered a potential ally but its aid wasn't too important.) An important Hungarian aristocrat had a crush on her and wanted to help her if she has sex with him. She agreed to be a prostitute for an evening, in order to help her beloved empire. The Hungarian guy with a moustache realized that in this way, he couldn't get erection, so canceled the plans. But she traveled to the Kingdom of Hungary. While crying and showing her kid, as a desperate mother who was betrayed, she charmed both the important aristocrat who had a crush on her as well as the rest of the Hungarian nobility. Despite the "more than usual" Hungarian opposition to female rulers, they crowned her the Hungarian queen in Bratislava (now the capital of independent Slovakia; between 1536 and 1783, the capital of Hungary as "Pressburg") in 1741. Tens of thousands of Hungarian soldiers were suddenly available for her and she defended Austria against the attacks.

(She was also crowned the Czech queen two years after the Hungarian one, in 1743. A competitor, Karel Albrecht of Bavaria, did crown himself a king of Bohemia in Prague just a bit earlier. In 1743, she was already firmly in charge of things so the coronation in Prague was a problem-free celebration.)

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