A tender, achingly poignant portrait of the Austrian actress Maria Schell, “My Sister Maria” is a valentine from her younger brother Maximilian. It’s also a worthy complement to the filmmaker/actor’s 1984 Dietrich docu “Marlene,” and would make fine programming for cinema retrospectives and arts-oriented cable outlets.
Cinephiles will recall Maria Schell from her dozens of film roles in Europe and Hollywood. Schell was the only thesp to have won acting awards at Cannes and Venice in the same year for two different films (“Gervaise” and “The Last Bridge” in 1957). She worked under Clement and Visconti and starred opposite Gary Cooper and Marlon Brando.
Today she suffers from a degenerative neurological disorder and lives alone, bankrupt, in a remote chalet in the Austrian countryside, cared for by her extended family. To modern audiences, the once celebrated actress has become a curiosity and a historical footnote: one young Austrian woman admits she “had no idea (Schell) was so famous.” Maximilian Schell’s film aims to burnish his sister’s reputation, but it doesn’t back down from showing the tragedy her life has become.
Maria’s disease — never specified — has attacked the functioning of her cerebral cortex, leaving the 76-year old all but incapable of exercising self-discipline when it comes to money. Unsupervised, she ordered extravagant gifts for virtual strangers and wrote checks she couldn’t cover. Addicted to television — she owns 11 sets — the actress spends her days reliving her youth surrounded by videos replaying her films.
Taking a cue from “Marlene,” in which Dietrich refused to be shown on camera, helmer Schell builds the mystery by introducing his sister only through her voice, newsreels, and excerpts of her many films. When her face is finally revealed, nearly 30 minutes in, the transformation is startling. The once vivacious, full-lipped blonde beauty has given way to a frail old woman who could be mistaken for an aging hausefrau.
Docu’s middle section deals with Maria’s mental state, including interviews with her neurologist, and shows her family’s efforts to care for her. At the doctor’s suggestion, Maximilian attempts to engage Maria in conversation and exercise, though she stubbornly insists she would rather retreat to watching television; she finds it “more interesting than reality.”
Reality, in fact, means a debt running to millions of schillings. When a judge demands the confiscation and sale of her personal effects, brother Maximilian steps in, and, to preserve Maria’s dignity, offers to sell his valuable art collection. The auction is only fleetingly shown, and Maximilian never upbraids his sister or loses his temper with her. Much like the cinematic homage he has lovingly assembled, it’s a gallant gesture his sister, sadly, will likely never appreciate.