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By Phil Hall | August 10, 2007

During the late 1950s, Austrian actress Maria Schell achieved an uncommon degree of popularity in European art films. But her stardom was relatively brief – although she continued acting well into the 1900s, her importance as a leading lady was already evaporating in the early 1960s. By the end of the 1990s, she was not seen in public and rumors about her health and mental stability floated across the Austrian media.

Her brother, actor and filmmaker Maximilian Schell, created the 2002 documentary “My Sister Maria” to address many of the rumors concerning the star’s health, mental acuity and financial difficulties. The film doesn’t sugarcoat Maria’s problems, especially her late-life bankruptcy (her brother sold his considerable art collection to cover her debts), but it is somewhat vague on the exact nature of her medical condition (it appears she may have had a stroke or a brain-related illness that clouded her memory functions).

While Maria appears frail in this film, she seems to be in charge of her memories – especially regarding her career. She speaks freely and frankly about her rise as a movie star (first in Austria, then in other European films), her less-than-stellar career on Broadway and in Hollywood, and her domestic problems including two failed marriages and a poor relation with her son. Numerous clips from Schell’s movies are presented, offering evidence of a talented woman who too frequently was stuck in less-than-worthy vehicles.

Maria is also still in possession of an ironic sense of humor. When confronted with unflattering tabloid coverage, she notices the article is not a cover story. “I used to be page one,” she observes. “Now I’m page three.”

“My Sister Maria” uses obvious recreations to present Maria’s reclusive state and the efforts of her family to keep her physically and mentally active. Yet this is hardly a cheat, and many of the situations here (including a daily walk across a snowy lane in the winter) are painfully moving.

The actress died in 2005 from complications relating to pneumonia. Mercifully, her final screen appearance was this loving tribute. For those who recall her captivating talent and youthful beauty, “My Sister Maria” is a glorious love letter to a forgotten star.

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