- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

Almost 20 years ago, Maximilian Schell intruded on Marlene Dietrich, an octoge-

narian recluse in Paris, as a prelude to compiling a career chronicle. Titled “Marlene,” it reached a handful of American art houses in 1986.Miss Dietrich, one of the cast members of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which brought Mr. Schell the 1961 Academy Award for best actor, consented only to audiotaped interviews.Being photographed was no longer indispensable to her.

Mr. Schell felt obliged to pull a few fast ones while illustrating his Dietrich conversations. He supplemented the perfectly defensible — clips from her movies and newsreel documentation — with the downright presumptuous — a replica of her Paris apartment, which became the pretext for intermittent, woozy camera rambles.

As an interviewer, he kept pestering her to confront the camera again, provoking notes of asperity that seemed avoidable. They kept the focus on Mr. Schell as a nagging courtier.

A similar perversity resurfaces in “My Sister Maria,” booked exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema for one week only. This is Mr. Schell’s account of the reclusive situation of his sister, Maria Schell. Born in 1926, she is his elder by four years.Two other siblings, also actors, have died.

Once a prominent, even revered, film actress of the 1950s and early 1960s, Miss Schell emerges, gradually, from concealment while living in twilight seclusion at a family lodge in Switzerland.

In fact, she resides on the same steep and often snowbound property that provided the Schell family with refuge in 1938, when the parents — a Swiss poet-playwright named Hermann Ferdinand Schell and an Austrian actress named Margarethe von Noe — fled Vienna as Hitler was being welcomed as a redeemer.

Evidently, age and infirmity have left Maria in a somewhat inert and mentally dodgy condition, inclined to linger in a bedroom surrounded by television monitors and likely to make rash purchases by phone. For example, we witness a moment — or re-enactment — in which she places an impulsive order for duplicate Murano chandeliers.

Mr. Schell isn’t at all scrupulous about differentiating between spontaneous and staged revelations.At one point, we appear to be watching Maria set herself aflame while trying to light a fire in a nearby cabin. It’s never clear if this is a simulation of an authentic near-calamity or a Maximilian Schell premonition of what could occur when an elderly loved one gets restless and unwary.

The upshot of this willing invasion of privacy is that Maria’s financial situation has deteriorated so drastically that the property faces foreclosure.Mr. Schell comes to the rescue gallantly by selling a Rothko to pay off her creditors.

For a while it’s uncertain whether Maria Schell will become a full-bodied camera subject. Mr. Schell is fixated on her hands for several sequences, and the interior light levels are dim.

We do see Miss Schell in some distressing and unkempt moments, but by and large, she holds her own in a peculiarly vulnerable context.Despite an encroaching torpor and the thickening of her facial features, a distinctive smile — one of her rapturous assets when young and successful — remains intact. The large, expressive eyes are sometimes as cagey about the camera as they used to be.

Savory clips, notably from half-remembered imports of the 1950s such as Helmut Kautner’s “The Last Bridge” and Rene Clement’s “Gervaise,”argue for a Maria Schell retrospective. These were the European triumphs — they won her acting awards at the Cannes festival in 1954 and the Venice Film Festival in 1956 respectively — that led Hollywood to recruit her as a prestige muse in the late 1950s.

Among her contemporaries, Sophia Loren and Romy Schneider caught better breaks in Hollywood, but for a time, Miss Schell seemed an exceptional instrument of pathos. Her brother’s update inspires nothing so much as a desire to rediscover some of the movies that illustrate her prime.


TITLE: “My Sister Maria”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Maximilian Schell. Cinematography by Piotr Jaxa. In German with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes


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