Since the documentary was born in Robert Flaherty's 1922 movie Nanook Of The North, the question over what is real, what is staged, and what is affected by the camera's presence has been a constant source of contention. Paradoxically, the form attracts equal parts trust and suspicion, because it's never clear just how unvarnished the truth really isor, in the words of Jean-Luc Godard, "Cinema is truth at 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie." Recent years have found documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) experimenting with staged re-creations of events, but never to the point where the border between fiction and reality is blurred beyond distinction.
Enter Maximilian Schell, the glazed Austrian ham who starred in Disney's The Black Hole, among other things, in his long journeyman career as an actor. By practical necessity, his 1983 film Marlene, a profile of the great German actress Marlene Dietrich, had to incorporate unconventional techniques, because the tempestuous star refused to allow Schell to photograph her. This must have been liberating for him, because he applies the same baffling aesthetic to My Sister Maria, a deeply personal and deeply silly portrait of his sister Maria Schell, another actress who has long since gone the way of Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond. Through a haphazardly structured mix of film clips, conversations, staged scenes, and bizarre reenactments, Maximilian tries to get at the heart of his ailing subject, but the poor woman probably would have been better off left alone.
Once a pretty young ingénue from Vienna, Maria Schell appeared opposite several marquee stars in her day, including Marcello Mastroianni (White Nights), Gary Cooper (The Hanging Tree), and Yul Brynner (The Brothers Karamazov). But as her limited fame faded into obscurity, Maria's personal life deteriorated in kind, whether through her distant relationship with her father, her drug-addicted son, or the lover who drove her to attempt suicide. Her brother's investigation finds her as a 76-year-old who suffers from severe dementia and lives alone in a mountain chalet, where she spends her days flanked by 11 TVs blaring at high volume.
Maximilian treats his sister with a measure of tenderness and brotherly compassion, but he's not shy about playing the hero. When Maria's compulsive spending habits lead her to the brink of bankruptcy, he bails her out by selling a Mark Rothko painting at auction. My Sister Maria's unconventional staged scenes seem intended to illuminate the alternate world that persists in her mind, including a moment where she watches Deep Impact (in which Maximilian has a supporting role) and believes the end is nigh. But the overall effect is exploitative and undignified: When Maria walks the icy path to her house and falls face-down in the snow, Maximilian the artist is there coaxing her along.