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Aging is a touchy subject for most, and even filmmakers with the best intentions tend to stumble over it, leaning too often toward the sentimental or the pat. Not so with My Sister Maria, Maximilian Schell’s intimate semidocumentary about his big sister, legendary German actress Maria Schell. The film opens with one of many staged scenes, in which Maria’s doctor is talking to Maximilian (a noted actor as well as director) 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 à la Blanche Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (You can’t really blame her: Her career carried her across five decades, stage and screen, Europe and America. She also won Germany’s prestigious Bambi Award nine times and starred alongside Yul Brynner and Gary Cooper in her American films.) Using an unnerving and effective narrative device, the younger Schell combines the usual vintage and talking-head footage with sequences of various family members portraying themselves in scenes that illustrate what has become of Maria’s glamorous life and sharp intellect. 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 has experienced two very different worlds. The contrast is reinforced in a sequence, presumably based on real events, in which Maria experiences paparazzi harassment in her current state of deterioration: After a tabloid photographer sneaks into her 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!’” The scene has a laughing-while-crying quality, but later the mood turns darker: After watching Maximilian dying in a television broadcast of the America disaster movie Deep Impact, Maria phones an estranged relative to tell him she loves him before the asteroid hits. Such moments illuminate the harsh realities of growing old, in a light that only a loved one can shine.

—Jason Powell