Early on in actor Maximilian Schell’s buoyant, unsettling film about his sister, the actress Maria Schell, paparazzi break into their lovely ancestral lodge in the mountains of southern Austria. Murmuring shameless nothings about how much they admire her work, they snap photos of the helpless 76-year-old woman, one of which will appear the next day in a tabloid —
a cruelly exploitive shot that recalled a similar one of Rita Hayworth, ravaged by late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, that appeared years ago in the National Enquirer.
Watching My Sister Maria, whose blithe liberties with documentary form qualify it for the uneasy new sobriquet “nonfiction film,” one worries from scene to scene about whether the movie is a work of experimental art or just another ruthless intrusion into the life of a dying and, to some degree, broken woman. I’m willing to bet that Maximilian fretted over this too, for the film is as tense and fractured, as alienating — and, finally, touching — a work as it undoubtedly ought to be. Encomia don’t come as tender, or as brutally candid, as this reading of what seems, on the face of it, a textbook Sunset Boulevard tale of a young actress who becomes first a European, then a Hollywood, sensation and in turn loses her grip when the contracts dwindle and the tempestuous marriages and love affairs fail. Now we see her slumped in bed, wrinkled hands fluttering over the remote as she compulsively replays videos of her films, or phones in multiple orders of expensive items she sees advertised on one of her 11 televisions. Maria’s memory bank, a doctor (or maybe it’s an actor playing a doctor) explains, has reset itself to the point where she lives in an alternative reality — much as film itself does, as Schell is clearly aware in this re-mapping of his sister’s life, a stylized essay whose visual strategies echo those of his award-winning biopic of Marlene Dietrich. Maria’s past is mulled in montages that juggle old news footage and family photos with clips of her movies, in which she appears as an angelic sufferer opposite Gary Cooper in the 1959 Western The Hanging Tree, whirling in a frantic dance for Yul Brynner in The Brothers Karamazov, or in the German films of her early career as a blue-eyed Teutonic seraph. In one comically appalling exception that suggests the actress has her steely side, she paddles with radiant zeal the bare bum of an unidentified youngster.
Schell has drafted his large family, including young children by his Russian wife Natasha, into a stage production — in which the only truly spontaneous presence is the actress herself — of Maria’s present life. She comes across serene and remarkably lucid as she submits to her brother’s blunt probing of the links between her longing for their cultured, handsome, distant father, her attempted suicide after a lover left her (“I didn’t have enough of him,” she says), and her tenuous relationship with a drug-addicted son. (When Maximilian asks Maria what have been the happiest times of her life, she answers, with heartbreaking vulnerability, “Always the beginning of a love.”) This is fascinating stuff, but one comes away with the queasy feeling that Maximilian, for all his palpable love for his sister, has inherited some of his father’s austere implacability and turned into a doting domestic tyrant. On the advice of her doctor, he alternately coaxes and coerces her into walking up and down an icy path near their home, then shoots her falling flat on her face in the snow.
What adds to the fascination is that Maximilian often seems not fully in charge of his own subterranean yearnings for grandeur. In her declining years, Maria has frittered away her entire fortune and more, and her brother must head off a public auction of her property by selling his art collection. Watching Maria’s dirty laundry get aired, whether in real or stage-managed time, one can’t help wondering what’s in it for Maximilian, who’s not above publicly playing the hero here. Yet his instinctive sense of theater goes to the heart of the dilemma implicit in any intimate documentary — how much is too much, especially when the subject is a blood relative? In a final, aching shot of Maria —
a stooped figure gamely shuffling through the snow framed by two white-covered trees — one senses, after all, more homage than rip-off.
MY SISTER MARIA | Directed by MAXIMILIAN SCHELL | Written by SCHELL and GERO VON BOEHM | Produced by SCHELL, DIETER POCHLATKO, MARGIT CHUCHRA and WERNER SCHWEIZER Released by Epo-film| At the Nuart