Schell, Maria (1926—)

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Schell, Maria (1926—)

Austrian actress. Name variations: acted as Gritli Schell. Born Maria Margarethe Anna Schell in Vienna, Austria, on January 15, 1926; daughter of Hermann Ferdinand Schell (a Swiss playwright) and Marguerite (de Noé) Schell (an actress); sister of Maximilian Schell (an actor, director, producer, and screenwriter); attended a convent school at Colmar in Alsace; attended business school in Switzerland; attended the School of Theatrical Arts, Zurich; married Horst Hächler (a film director), on April 27, 1957.

Selected filmography:

Steibruch (Switz., 1942); Der Engel mit der Posaune (Aus.-Ger., 1948); Angel With the Trumpet (UK, 1949); Die letzte Nacht (Ger., 1949); Es Kommt ein Tag (Ger., 1950); Dr. Holl (Angelika, Ger., 1951); The Magic Box (UK, 1951); So Little Time (UK, 1952); Tagebuch einer Verliebten (Ger., 1953); Der träumende Mund (Dreaming Lips, Ger., 1953); The Heart of the Matter (UK, 1953); Die letzte Brücke (The Last Bridge, Ger.-Yugo., 1955); Napoléon (Fr., 1955); Die Ratten (The Rats, Ger., 1955); Gervaise (Fr., 1956); Liebe (Ger., 1956); Rose Bernd (The Sins of Rose Bernd, Ger., 1957); Le Notti bianche (White Nights, It.-Fr., 1957); Une Vie (End of Desire, Fr.-It., 1958); The Brothers Karamazov (US, 1958); Raubfischer in Hellas (As the Sea Rages, Ger.-Yugo., 1959); The Hanging Tree (US, 1959); Cimarron (US, 1960); The Mark (UK, 1961); Ich bin auch nur eine Frau (Only a Woman, Ger., 1962); L'Assassin connaît la Musique (Fr., 1963); Le Diable par la Queue (The Devil by the Tail, Fr.-It., 1969); 99 Mujeres (99 Women, 1969); Night of the Blood Monster (1971); The Odessa File (UK, 1974); Follies Bourgeoises (Fr., 1976); Voyage of the Damned (UK, 1976); So oder so ist das Leben (also co-prod., Ger., 1976); Schöner Gigolo—armer Gigolo (Just a Gigolo, Ger., 1978); Superman (US, 1978); La Passante du Sans-Souci (La Passante, 1982); 1919 (UK, 1985).

An internationally acclaimed actress who frequently portrayed soulful, downtrodden women, Maria Schell reached the peak of her career in the 1950s, winning the 1954 Cannes Film Festival award as Best Actress for her work in Helmut Kautner's Die letzte Brücke (The Last Bridge) and the 1956 Venice Festival prize for René Clement's Gervaise. Her much-anticipated American debut, as the sensuous Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov (1958), advanced her career in the United States. During the 1960s, however, Schell's star declined swiftly, largely due to the women's movement and the stronger, less vulnerable female characters written for the screen.

Born in 1926 into a distinguished theatrical family, Schell is the eldest child of Hermann Ferdinand Schell, a Swiss playwright, and Marguerite de Noé , a Viennese actress of French and Austrian descent. All three of Schell's younger siblings are also actors, the most famous among them being Maximilian Schell. In 1938, with Hitler's forces on the move, the Schell family left Vienna and settled in Zurich, where Maria attended a convent school. Although she appeared in theatricals as a child, her father insisted that she attend business school before indulging her growing interest in acting.

Schell then took an office job, but her heart was elsewhere. Auditioning for a small role in the Swiss film Der Steinbruch in 1942, she was unexpectedly awarded the lead, thus opening the door to an acting career. She subsequently enrolled at the School of Theatrical Arts in Zurich, studying her craft while making a second film and appearing on the Zurich stage. She then did a stint with the State Theater of Bern, further honing her skills in a classical repertory of plays. In 1948, intending to join the Burgtheater, a major German-language repertory company, she was side-tracked by an offer to play the lead in the Austrian film Der Engel mit der Posaune. The role led to a seven-year contract with famed film impresario Sir Alexander Korda.

Schell's skills and fluency in several languages led her to starring roles in over 20 European films, including Die letzte Brücke, The Heart of the Matter (based on Graham Greene's novel), and Gervaise, which, in addition to the Cannes award, won the New York Film Critics Award as the Best Foreign Film in 1957 and was nominated for an Academy Award. Between films, Schell continued to perform in the live theater, enjoying the opportunity to develop full characterizations and to do an occasional comic role. In 1957, she married German film director Horst Hächler.

Schell's American debut as Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov, a role coveted by Marilyn Monroe , was preceded by a Time article in which the actress was extolled for her talent, but was also characterized as ambitious and egotistical, charges she denied in a flurry of additional articles. The publicity did much to enhance the success of the film, which also featured Yul Brynner and Lee J. Cobb, who was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category. The beautiful German export was immediately cast in two additional Hollywood films, Hanging Tree (1959) and Cimarron (1961), both westerns. She also starred in three television dramas, including a two-part dramatization of Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.

After 1963, Schell all but retired from films, returning only occasionally for a character role. She acted and served as co-producer of the film So oder so ist das Leben (1976). Her last American film was Superman (1976) in which she appeared in the much-ballyhooed opening sequence with Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, and Susannah York .


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1961. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1961.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts