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My Sister Maria
Meine schwester Maria

My Sister Maria
Arte / Rainbow
2002 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 90 min. / Meine Schwester Maria / Street Date February 27, 2007 / 24.99
Starring Maria Schell, Maximillian Schell
Cinematography Piotr Jaxa
Film Editor Charlotte Müllner
Written by Maximilian Schell, Natasha Schell, Gero von Boehm
Produced by Alfred Hürmer, Dieter Pochlatko, Maximilian Schell
Directed by Maximilian Schell

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An unlikely idea becomes a superb movie in My Sister Maria, a fascinating semi-documentary from 2002. Writer/director/actor Maximillian Schell studies the life of his beloved older sister Maria, a famous German stage and film actress who had some success in the United States almost 50 years ago: Richard Brooks' The Brothers Karamazov, the Anthony Mann remake of Cimarron, and the wonderful Gary Cooper western The Hanging Tree. Confined in an Austrian bungalow and cared for by concerned relatives, Ms. Schell's memory is unreliable and her behavior erratic. But she's an excellent film subject.

The film tells Maria's life story but isn't entirely a documentary. He restages certain scenes, such as conversations with local creditors and neighbors angling to purchase the aging actress's property should it come on the market. When Schell family gathers around her during a power outage, more key action may be staged. Maria, who can variously appear senile and then as sharp as a tack, doesn't seem to be acting at all -- although we know she's quite capable of fooling any camera.

The show starts with two tabloid photographers sneaking onto the property. Just like in the movie Psycho, one of them gets the attention of the housekeeper while the other stalks into Maria's room. A couple of days later, the unflattering photo is all over the papers.

Schell uses family photographs to explain his sister's rise to fame and fortune. She was a superstar in Europe, easily the most popular post-war German actress. We see clips from her American movies but many are from German and Italian pictures rarely shown here. She stars with Curd Jürgens in a couple of them, along with extremely young Germans like Hardy Krüger and Oskar Werner. She's in Visconti's White Nights with Marcello Mastroianni, and stars with Paul Scofield as well. Her bright eyes and fresh smile are dazzling; they never seem false.

Inter-cut with this is Maria Schell in 2002, become something of a troublesome tenant in her own life. She dotes on her grandchildren and pouts when the housekeeper brings her soup. She does her best to follow her doctors' orders, taking walks outside in the snow. A helper guides her with tiny steps up an icy path, leaving a stick in the snow to mark how far she goes each day. The object is to reach a shed further across the hill. Maximillian creates a beautiful contrast by juxtaposing this effort with a scene from the 1959 The Hanging Tree. As the blinded "Lost Lady" in a California gold camp, Maria fearfully wanders near the edge of a cliff, looking equally vulnerable.

In what are surely semi-staged scenes, Maximillian arrives and is dismayed to see that his sister is watching three televisions at once. She enjoys her old films and considers it a pleasant way to revisit her earlier days. Max thinks this can't be good as a steady diet. Maria has no intention of being told what to do, on this or any other subject.

The movie peaks in a series of conversations between Max and Maria that we believe are 100% real. He asks her about her past; she explains some details and withholds others behind her enigmatic smile. Maria enjoyed the enormous freedom that came with her fame and regrets nothing, although she knows she made some bad romantic choices. At one glowing moment, she admits that her favorite co-star, the most attractive man she ever knew, was Gary Cooper.

She also had her share of trouble, including bouts with depression and suicide attempts. The package text says that she has "an unwillingness to grow old gracefully," but we can't help but see grace in her mischievous smile. Unlike most people, Maria clearly loves cameras and her image. She makes an excellent docu subject, even when being uncooperative.

Maximilllian eventually has to bail his sister out when it transpires that she's frittered away all of her money on scores of television sets, and has allowed herself to be cheated out of a small fortune. In a taped courtroom deposition, a local man smiles as he says that Schell, practically a stranger, gave him ridiculously expensive gifts on a whim. Maria's in danger of losing the family property until her brother auctions his art collection to raise the small fortune needed to pay her creditors.

My Sister Maria may have been formulated as a way of earning money to take care of Maria Schell, essentially doing what the tabloid photographers did in a way that benefits Maria instead of victimizing her. Schell's image of old age is both compelling and universal. She has both physical and mental limitations but unlike most people, can review huge pieces of her life on video. The 90-odd movies she's made since 1942 must contain thousands of memory triggers, and she watches them with great interest. Some of the answers she gives to her brother's questions are amazingly compressed and intelligent. We read both her opinions and her attitudes as if we were talking to a close family member, somebody we know intimately. Anyone who remembers a Maria Schell performance will surely be charmed. You just want to hug her and make sure she doesn't slip on the ice.

Maximillian Schell uses a patently staged event for a finish; he has his sister reach the woodshed alone, and then accidentally start a fire. Somehow this doesn't seem like a cheat at all; it is probably a recreation of a previous fire scare. What sticks in the memory are some views of Maria standing on her grassy green hill in a different season, when everything is much more alive and beautiful.

Rainbow's release of My Sister Maria is a handsome enhanced transfer of a beautifully filmed show. Sadly, there are no extras, but the packaging contains compelling critical paragraphs from Roger Ebert and Kenneth Turan. The disk is highly recommended.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, My Sister Maria rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 22, 2007

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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