My Sister Maria

mymaria2Fir trees silhouetted in fog.

The beauty of winter in the Austrian Alps, and the spectacle of two men hauling a shiny, new television set across a snow-covered rural hillside.

A funeral, with the tops of black, rain-slicked umbrellas forming a circular, ever shifting tapestry; a montage of black and white footage from a seemingly more glamorous 1950s—Maximilian Schell’s one-of-a-kind film My Sister Maria encompasses all these indelible images and several more.

Schell, in this rambling, low-key experiment in nostalgia, above all sparks an interest in (re-) discovering his sister’s old movies from five or six decades ago. Maria Schell in her youth was as lovely as Garbo or Liv Ullmann were in theirs, and the clips from Gervaise, Le Notti Bianche, The Last Bridge, The Angel with the Trumpet, and The Hanging Tree (among others) are generously, beguilingly chosen. It isn’t just the movies; it’s the sense of an era that her brother recreates. Amid the paparazzi reels that preserve Maria’s days as an icon—she won Best Actress prizes at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals the same year for two different films, an unprecedented honor—there’s a surprising shot of Bob Hope, tuxedo-clad, not smiling, clutching a martini, and for all the world exuding a claustrophobic air of entitlement. It’s a rare moment, and the image shutters past in less than one: Hope, the consummate giver, being selfishly human.

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My Sister Maria impresses me as unmistakably all of a piece with Schell’s style as a director. The wandering narrative that emphasizes atmosphere summons memories of his 1970 First Love. Vivid settings and the time, the deliberate pace spent on details within them, in both films, become the dominant modes of storytelling. It’s a novelistic or painterly approach, yet through Schell’s visual astuteness, a cinematic one, too. In Marlene, his 1984 documentary about Marlene Dietrich, Schell interviewed the legendary actress in voice-over; the latter-day Dietrich never appeared on camera, and we viewed her through the prism of vintage film clips. My Sister Maria begins in a similar way. The elderly Maria lies in bed at the family’s rustic lodge in the Alps, her days filled with watching her old movies on television. We see her hands, hear her voice, but we don’t see her face. There’s a spectacular interspersion of the young Maria dancing lustily with an equally ripe and jubilant Marcello Mastroianni (from Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche). Gradually, once Schell establishes Maria’s dazzling past for an audience not familiar with her work, he reveals the 76-year-old Maria, and grandmotherly though she may be, the auburn-haired actress still has a radiant smile.

Unlike Dietrich, Maria isn’t the most effusive interviewee. Schell has a difficult time winning his sister’s attention away from her televisions. (At one point, she has three going simultaneously.) “Are you watching your old movies again?” he asks her, and she counters, “It’s more interesting than reality, don’t you think so?” Or preferable, certainly. Late in the film, Schell juxtaposes multiple screens of tanks shelling Kosovo, the young Maria in a ball gown striding by a balustrade, and the old Maria supine and indifferent to it all.

In the film’s most exquisite sequence, a power outage forces the televisions off, and communication begins. Even so, Schell meets with other delays. He lights candles in her room and lights a fire, but before the siblings can speak in earnest, the grandchildren and assorted members of the household, each bearing candles, noisily bound into Maria’s bedroom. The children squabble pettily until Schell silences them with a well placed “Shut up!” And then, as they sit there, no one saying anything, the camera pans slowly around the huddled circle of relatives, their faces illumined by candlelight, and the only sounds we hear are the crackling of flames. Outside, there’s snow, and part of the magic of this scene stems from the sense of how terribly cold it must be beyond those cozy walls. Maria finally breaks the silence by asking her brother to play something at the piano, and he obliges.

It’s all Bach on the soundtrack, by the way, and when brother and sister reminisce at length in looking over family portraits, Dinu Lipatti’s recording of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” fills the spaces in their recollections beautifully. — NPT

August 18, 2004

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