My Sister Maria


The inevitability of growing old is a touchy subject for most, and even filmmakers with the best of intentions can stumble when dealing with this issue, leaning toward sentimentality or pat portrayals. Not so with My Sister Maria (Nővérem, Maria), Maximilian Schell’s intimate semidocumentary film about his big sister, legendary German actress Maria Schell. The film opens with the first of many staged scenes, in which Maria’s doctor is talking to Maximilian (a noted actor and director himself) about his sister’s declining mental state. It seems the 76-year-old Maria is slowly retreating into the past: Propped up in bed and surrounded by televisions, she constantly watches her old movies á la Blanche Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. Using an unnerving yet effective narrative device, the younger Schell combines documentary footage, clips from Maria’s most noted roles, and on-camera interviews between himself and his sister with sequences of various family members portraying themselves in scenes that illustrate what has become of Maria’s glamorous life and sharp intellect. A treasure of German cinema to this day, her career carried her across five decades, stage and screen, Europe and America; Maria won Germany’s prestigious Bambi award nine times, and starred alongside Yul Brynner and Gary Cooper in her American films. But Schell the director is careful to strike a balance between Maria’s earlier highs and her present day lows, never letting his audience lose sight of the fact that his subject is the same person who has experienced both of these worlds. This is reinforced in a staged sequence (assumedly based on real events) in which Maria experiences paparazzi harassment in her current state of deterioration. After a tabloid photographer sneaks into Maria’s remote, snow-covered cottage and snaps a shot of the bewildered former celebrity, the picture is splashed in a local newspaper. When Maximilian asks the housekeeper about Maria’s response to the unflattering photograph, she quotes, “‘Page 3? I used to be on Page 1!'” While this scene has a laughing-while-crying quality, later in the film it seems Maria is officially losing touch with reality. When she sees Maximilian’s character dying in a television broadcast of the America disaster movie Deep Impact, Maria phones her estranged son to tell him she loves him before the asteroid hits. Such scenes show the harsh realities of aging combined with the downfall of celebrity, but the real strength of Maximilian Schell’s portrait comes from providing the brutal honesty that only a loved one can.


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December 2008
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