MAYERLING AT MIDNIGHT
“Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.”
~ Cecil B. DeMille
I love sappy, sentimental Christmas movies. I cry as soon as a bell rings and Clarence gets his wings in It’s a Wonderful Life. When Jimmy Stewart goes all Alfred Hitchcock and frightens Donna Reed into the middle of Valentine’s Day, I get chills. That film is one of my favorites.
And how about those big galoots in Miracle on 34th Street that were too obtuse to see that Edmund Gwynne was not playing a role? He really was Kris Kringle. Anybody with half a brain could see that.
There is another film I love, although it may not be a true Christmas film. Mayerling, the romantic portrayal of a royal love affair gone tragically awry, is a movie I always watch during the holidays.
I was reminded of it the year I went to Austria for Christmas hoping for a snowfall, something we Southerners know little about. Upon arriving in Vienna five days before Christmas, there was plenty of seriously cold weather, but not one snowflake could be found. I bundled up like an Eskimo and walked around the city shivering like a jellyfish.
I saw performances of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker and then sashayed across Philharmoniker Strasse to the Hotel Sacher for a reviving cup of hot Viennese coffee and a decadent Sacher torte. Yum.
In short, my days and nights leading up to “C” Day were pleasantly full with only one snag. Austrian merchants and hoteliers go home at mid-day to be with their families leaving skeleton crews to take care of tourists like me. Consequently, I had nothing to do on the Eve of Christmas or for “C” Day itself.
That is the reason why on Christmas Eve I wandered alone in the near-empty hotel lobby leafing through travel brochures. What to my wandering eyes should appear, but a red and green pamphlet promoting a traditional Christmas Eve dinner deep in the Vienna Woods, culminating with Midnight Mass at Mayerling.
“Mayerling,” I sighed breathlessly as I shoved the brochure toward the only employee left in the hotel. “Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve starred in that movie. So romantic, so tragic and so...”
The hotel person raised his eyebrows and sniffed. “Bitte?”
I nodded vigorously. “Mayerling,” I said as plainly as I could. “Ya?”
In perfect English, he told me there was one seat left on the bus for Mayerling. Could I be ready by four o’clock?
Grinning wildly, I shouted, “Ya! Ya! Mayerling. Hot diggidy dawg!”
The bus was warm and noisy and loaded with as many nationalities as a NATO Summit. We chugged along until finally arriving at a quaint restaurant steeped in old world charm that might have been decorated by Heidi herself, (played by Shirley Temple).
After a traditional Austrian Christmas Eve dinner of fried carp, roast goose, baked celery root and marzipan, we re-boarded the old bus and rode to the bottom of a hill in the thick of the Vienna Woods.
It was close to midnight when our tour guide doled out lighted “torches” to us with instructions to walk quietly, single-file up the hill to the chapel for Mass. The penitential convent, she said, had once been the site of a hunting lodge where Crown Prince Rudolf (played by Omar Sharif) and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera (played by Catherine Deneuve) sealed their fate in a murder/suicide pact.
“The altar,” she said to her captive audience, “stands over the very spot in the Prince’s bedroom where the bodies were discovered.” A chorus of expected “oohs” and “aahs” followed.
I had hiked almost to the top of the hill when the first soft snowflake danced on my nose. When I looked behind me, what I saw snatched away what was left of my breath. Dozens of flickering hand-held torches twisted, turned and meandered up the hill illuminating an otherwise black night. The only sounds to be heard came from icy footstep crunches that accompanied the gentle purr of falling snow. C. B. DeMille, uber Hollywood king of dazzling productions in the Fifties could not have staged it more beautifully.
In that moment, all romantic illusions of Rudolf and Mary and their tragic love affair vacated the premises of my conscious mind. Omar and Catherine playing a role were no longer available to cloud my vision of the sacred moment. The quiet midnight torches below etched themselves on my soul as indestructible strips of celluloid.
Eat your heart out, C.B.
I had seen unforgettable images before but none as indelible as the one stamped on my soul that Christmas Eve. I will always cherish the vision of that quiet group of people ambling up a hill at midnight to honor the Christ Child, born to bring us love, peace and hope for a better world.
I expect one day I’ll take that journey again. No, the inner etchings of that night have not faded, nor will they. That said, a remake is not out of the question. Stay tuned!