Romy Schneider spent her life in flight from teenage fame and an image she didn’t care to live up to, from press intrusion, from her own quixotic passions, and ultimately from the tragedy that enfolded her. An actress who slipped between light and shadow, she had a gaiety and an intensity unique in film.

Schneider came into bloom in the German cinema of the 1950s. Pastry-pretty, she waltzed through a series of light operettas and costume romances culminating in “the Sissi trilogy,” in which she played the young Empress Elisabeth of Austria. These “crinoline and diadem” movies—Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956), and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)—drenched in Agfacolor and steeped in a pre-war nostalgia, were among the most successful ever made in Germany (where they still play on television at Christmas) and, dubbed into several languages, made her a phenomenon throughout Europe. Newsreel footage shows her arriving in Madrid to a welcome that might have fazed the Beatles.

With fans in Germany during the Sissi years.

But Schneider felt increasingly cornered. “I was the princess, not just in front of the camera. I was always a princess. But one day I simply did not want to be a princess anymore,” she said. On the set of yet another forget-me-not romance, Christine, a 1958 French-Italian co-production, she met Alain Delon, one of the rising stars—and beauties—of the day. They began an affair, and when she moved to Paris at his suggestion, her family, who were overseeing her career, were appalled, and the German press, scandalized. Shrieking headlines denounced Delon as a kidnapper (The Princess and the Thief!) and castigated Schneider for deserting her legions of fans.

“I wasn’t just playing a princess, I was a princess.”

Schneider, unrepentant, refused all offers to return to Germany, among them a rumored several million DM (more than a million U.S. dollars) to reprise the role of Sissi. “To German filmmakers and producers I had become a sponge that must be squeezed to the last drop,” she said.

In an episode of Luchino Visconti’s Boccaccio ’70.

In Paris, Luchino Visconti cannily cast the lovers in a stage production of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. He then directed Schneider in an episode of Boccaccio ’70 (1962), an updating of The Decameron. In Visconti’s segment, “Il Lavoro,” Schneider plays a young German aristocrat married into a titled Milanese family. (The other two were directed by Federico Fellini and Vittorio de Sica. A fourth segment, directed by Mario Monicelli, was cut.) Her husband has become embroiled in a call-girl scandal and needs her support to avoid public disgrace. Schneider is in no doubt as to where the power in their union, which is funded by her father’s money, lies: “This is a marriage between you and Daddy. He’s the one who is upset!” On a whim, she decides she needs a job and, after exhausting the usual possibilities, opts to charge her husband for sex at the same rate that he has been paying prostitutes (less the madam’s commission). Sleek, soignée—Chanel did the clothes—and Sissi no more, Schneider enthusiastically embraced her second act.

“Shirley Tempelhof”

She was born Rosemarie Magdalena Albach in Austria in 1938. Her mother, Magda Schneider, was a popular star of German films and one of Hitler’s favorite actresses. (Schneider later claimed her mother was his mistress.) She made her debut at 15 in the 1953 film When the White Lilacs Bloom Again, a saccharine musical that nevertheless caught her special glow and set the tone for the dozen or so movies that followed.

As her popularity skyrocketed, her detractors took aim, dubbing her “Shirley Tempelhof” and “Germany’s best-known virgin.” Students at University of Erlangen-Nuremberg voted her “The World’s Worst Actress” (beating Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors for the honor). “I read things about myself in magazines I didn’t like. I’ve been quite uninterested by this huge success thing. That’s why I am changing. I can be different and I want to try it,” she told an interviewer, following her defection to Paris.

Romy Schneider and Alain Delon at Cannes in 1962.

She and Delon, now openly living together, were the ultimate (unmarried) “It couple” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962, dazzling in their white suits, a Rive Gauche Taylor and Burton, whose own headline-making love affair, le Scandale, was at that moment unfolding in Rome.

Interestingly, the Sissi phenomenon did not make it as far as the States. Paramount edited all three movies into one, which they released as Forever My Love in 1962. It was not especially popular in the U.S. Undeterred, Schneider began working internationally on Orson Welles’s version of Kafka’s The Trial (1962), as well as The Victors (1963) and The Cardinal (1963). One of her first roles in Hollywood was opposite Jack Lemmon in Good Neighbor Sam (1964). The film was tiresome, and the movie capital in the dying days of the studio system not to her liking. “Parties, parties,” she observed. “Everybody is bored and noisy. In Europe I go out only when I like to go out.”

Stories of a Suicide Attempt

Back in France in the summer of 1964, she began shooting Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Inferno, a hallucinogenic story of jealousy and betrayal with dream sequences involving Schneider tied naked to a railway track or bathed in psychedelic lighting designed to evoke Dante’s Inferno. The production was beset with problems, culminating in Clouzot’s heart attack three weeks into shooting, after which it was closed down. In 2009, a documentary pieced together footage that hinted at a unique Surrealist experiment. Schneider tried again with a big-budget Hollywood comedy (albeit filmed in Paris), What’s New, Pussycat? (1965), a Pop-art Feydeau farce kept afloat by the manic energy of its Zeitgeist cast.

Schneider in the erotic thriller The Swimming Pool, with Jane Birkin.

By now, Delon had left her for Nathalie Barthélémy (who would have her own movie career as Nathalie Delon). Schneider was said to be devastated, and stories of a suicide attempt quickly circulated. A series of portraits taken at the time by Will McBride, in the apartment the couple had shared, revealed an emotional intensity in Schneider that the cinema had yet to tap into.

In 1966 she met the German theater director Harry Meyen. They married and had a son, David, the same year. She moved back to Germany, but eventually returned to Paris. Pregnancy had ruled her out of Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966) and Accident (1967), and her career stalled until Delon requested her as his co-star in The Swimming Pool, an erotic psychological thriller directed by Jacques Deray. It was shot on the Côte d’Azur in the high summer of 1968, and the sexual tension all but drowned out the cicadas. Schneider, no longer an ingénue (a role she ceded to a doll-like Jane Birkin), had never been more radiantly beautiful, or in control. The press gathered in hordes, hoping for a passionate reunion, or a public spat, but Delon would later say that working on the movie only cemented their relationship as “brother and sister.”

The Swimming Pool was shot on the Côte d’Azur in the high summer of 1968. The sexual tension all but drowned out the cicadas.

The Swimming Pool was a box-office hit, as was Claude Sautet’s The Things of Life, in 1970. As the decade progressed, Schneider, drawn to ever more challenging roles (including four more with Sautet), established herself as a star in France to rival Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau and would win two César Awards. (She won a third posthumously.) Her colleagues sometimes wondered if she was sufficiently separated from her work. “People see me high and full of joy in one instant and then wanting to die a minute later,” she said at the time. “That makes it hard for people to be with me. To live with me. To work with me.”

Schneider at her apartment in Paris, in 1963.

In 1975, Schneider divorced Meyen and married her personal assistant, Daniel Biasini, with whom she had a daughter, Sarah. But the glass was darkening. Meyen committed suicide in 1979, and in 1981 Schneider’s son with him, David, died in a freak accident, puncturing an artery on a spiked fence at Biasini’s parents’ house. A visibly broken Schneider denounced the paparazzi, who swarmed to the scene, and the newspapers for printing their pictures. Within a year, she too would be dead, of heart failure. She was 43.

The normally reticent Delon published a searingly emotional farewell letter in Paris Match and quietly organized Schneider’s funeral. In the years since, her star has not dimmed in Europe. Dozens of biographies, photographic monographs, documentaries, and 2018’s docudrama 3 Days in Quiberon—disowned by Sarah Biasini for its portrayal of her mother as an alcoholic—have attempted to reclaim and reframe her. But Schneider, always resistant to categorization, had slipped free.

David Downton is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL