Marisa Mell: »Die Feuerblume« by André Schneider — interview with the author
by Mirko di Wallenberg, marisa-mell.blogspot.com, 12 December, 2013
Early last summer the Marisa Mell Blog celibrated its fifth anniversary! That was an occassion for me to look back on those wonderful five years from the moment when I started to write almost each and every week an entry about the life and work of Marisa Mell untill the present day. Around that time I got a telephone call from my dear friend André Schneider from Berlin telling me that he finally had found the time and the eagerness to fulfil his long wanted dream to write a biography about our favorite cult actress. From that moment on I lived on pure adrenaline wanting to hold that book in my hands and savouring every moment of it when her life story would enfold before my eyes and being able to admire her beauty once again on the more that 100+ pictures, most of them never seen before. One thing I knew for sure: if there was one person on this planet that would do Marisa Mell justice as a biographer it would be André Schneider. And I wasn’t wrong in my assumption. André Schneider has written a book with the utmost respect for his subject, which was not always easy, but in the end succeeded with bravour. So I am very glad that André Schneider found the time to grant me this interview:
Mirko: For those Marisa Mell Blog-readers that do not know you, André, tell us about yourself and your professional background?
André: To sum it up in one word: I’m a storyteller. In order to tell my stories, I choose different means of expression: movie-making, acting, and writing. I’m in my mid-thirties and based in Berlin, Germany.
Did you ever meet Marisa Mell in person, private or professionally?
No, never. I had just turned 14 when she died, so there was never any connection of any kind in this respect.
What did attract you to her? Was it her acting, her beauty or her life in general? How did you come in contact with the movies of Marisa Mell?
I had never even heard of her, even though I’ve been a cineaste extraordinaire ever since my childhood and have been watching at least one movie every day since I was 13. I stumbled across Erika Pluhar’s book in my early twenties and read it again in my late twenties after my partner had died. It was such an insight into a true friendship and love. After reading the book — which tells us hardly anything about the actress Marisa Mell — I desperately wanted to see some of her work, so I started with »Ben and Charlie« and Das Rätsel der roten Orchidee. Those were the easy ones to get. Then came La encadenada, a truly spellbinding fairy tale that made me fall in love with her. Not just her beauty — most leading ladies are beautiful —, but her aura. I was absolutely taken by the way the talked. Senta Berger wrote, »Marisa was chewing each word with relish«, which is absolutely true.
People often say that when you are attracted to someone it is because you see yourself in the mirror and that the other one is your counterpart? Do you have a feeling that this is also the case between Marisa Mell as a screen actress and yourself as a viewer?
No, not really. While reading »Marisa — Rückblenden auf eine Freundschaft«, I actually identified myself more with Erika Pluhar. Marisa was more like a mystery, a ghost that appeared and disappeared. Maybe that is what had caught my interest in the first place: a mystery unsolved. And even now, after seven years of research and writing about her, her mystery remains unsolved. This means a never-ending fascination.
You admire a lot of female actresses, you mention in the book, like Tippi Hedren, Romy Schneider, Christine Kaufmann… Why do you think that is?
I like artists that inspire me. I like strong people. Those women I mention in the book were really brave women; Capricorns mostly, very strong-willed and emancipated without being politically aware of it. Alfred Hitchcock was the director that opened up the world of cinema for me. I started collecting his films when I was 13, and »The Birds« was my fourth Hitchcock film. Tippi Hedren — and, in fact, all the Hitchcock blondes — fascinated me. I loved the way she smoked; a friend of mine called it »the high art of smoking«, very aware of the visual effect it has. The way she moved her head and hands was very well choreographed, highly sophisticated. It was unlike all the women I knew when I was a child. Unearthly perfection, although not quite perfect in a Hollywood sense: Tippi Hedren had a very big nose, a rather thin upper lip, and was very short.
Do you think that this a typical gay issue to admire beautiful and on-screen strong women like Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn… or female singers like Madonna in the past and now Lady Gaga?
Apparently it is a typical gay issue. I’m not sure why, though.
Was it a difficult writing process?
Oh yes! It was a struggle as well as a moral dilemma. During my researches I stumbled across some black spots, and a lot of white spots; things that Marisa wanted to keep private. And I thought, »I am not a journalist, I am simply someone who admires this woman. Do I have the right to publish all her secrets in this book?« — I didn’t want to lie. Marisa spread a lot of lies herself in »Coverlove«. I wanted it to be an honest book, but on the other hand I wanted to »protect« her privacy. For a long, long time I didn’t quite know how to walk this fine line. Some chapters of the book — the Broadway debacle, her miscarriages, her »lost years« between 1982 and 1989 — made me so sad that I thought, »I really don’t wanna go there.« — It was hard to overcome these feelings and finally give birth.
How did you tackle the research on the life of Marisa Mell?
The internet, books, books, books, newspaper articles, writing Marisa’s friends and co-workers, more internet, more books, more articles, your blog…
What do you like most: research or writing? Why?
In this case, it’s impossible to separate these two aspects. Research is fun because in Marisa’s case it’s almost a task for a private investigator; if you eventually find that little piece of information you have spent months searching for, it’s a uniquely cheerful moment. The writing is the creative process. To me, writing is like being in a trance. I couldn’t live without it.
Did you know in advance what direction the book should take or did it shape itself during the writing process?
No, not at all. Over the years, Die Feuerblume took on many different shapes and forms. Early in 2013, when I was editing a book of short stories I wanted to publish for Christmas, I chose to include my Marisa essays as well, only to discover that they already consisted of almost 200 pages, and I thought, »Wow, it really is a book of its own already!«, so I started re-working on it.
Why did you choose not the write a »classic« structured biography but optioned instead for, what you call »eine Annäherung«, or in other words getting to know Marisa Mell via her movies and social life?
I really tried to centre primarily on her movie and theatre work. This is the area I’m familiar with. I watched all her movies chronologically — if possible — and focused my attention on her acting. Most of her movies are almost unknown, so I wanted to shed a little light on them because some of them deserve to be discovered. In order to write a structured biography in a classic sense, I would have needed much more material from her childhood or her marriage, for instance. More interviews, diving into the television archives in Italy, Austria, Germany… There aren’t any living relatives left, and Erika Pluhar, Senta Berger, Helmut Berger, Christine Kaufmann, John Philip Law, Umberto Lenzi, Nieves Conde — they all have shared pretty much all they remember of her. Doing a proper biography would require a hell lot of work, and at this point I don’t see myself in the right position to do it justice. So I simply tried to approach her through my professional understanding of her work and the information I got from the »common« available sources. As part of my efforts to understand Marisa, I submitted samples of her handwriting to a certified graphologist. She found many good qualities, including intelligence, generosity, and enthusiasm. But, she added, »Being an actress, she could probably put up front. Nobody knew this woman.« Least of all, I finally concluded, Marisa herself.
Why are you so fascinated by the movies of the 60s and 70s when Marisa Mell was at the height of her career?
The shapes, the colors, the music… They’re simply beautiful to watch, that’s all. But I like movies from all the different eras. Right now, I’m more and more into the American film noir of the late 1940s and early 1950s; »Woman on the Run« is a forgotten gem.
Where you surprised finding out after having done your research that the life and work of Marisa Mell really pivots around her failed Broadway adventure with the musical Mata Hari? Before her participation she was the IT-girl of her time being careless, joyful, happy, the whole world at her feet and after the musical disaster, she lost complete confidence in herself and almost never really smiled again on the pictures taken of her and choosing movies only for the money?
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but if it is, it’s really odd that everything started to crumble after »Mata Hari«. First I thought her career went downhill in the early 1980s, but, matter-of-factly, it really started to disintegrate in the early 1970s. Danger: Diabolik, which she did directly before heading to New York for »Mata Hari«, was her last A-list movie. After her return to Italy five months later, she filmed more than ever — almost 20 films in five years —, but those were B-movies, and her parts were pretty much alike. She jumped from bikini role to bikini role, no matter if it was a comedy, a Giallo, a western, or a horror flick. I think that after »Mata Hari«, she was afraid of taking on another challenge, yes. On the other hand she kept herself busy in terms of being in a lot of movies, but she never worked more than six months a year: eight to ten weeks if she had a leading part like in Marta or Pena de muerte, only two or three days if she did a cameo like in Seven blood-stained orchids or »Ben and Charlie«.
The book about Marisa Mell is more than just a recounting of her life and work in the movies. It is also a very in depth study on the course of a professional movie career from the early steps in theatre school over the first steps in the movie business over gaining world success until the end of a career ending in poverty and despair! Was that your intention?
I don’t think I really had an »intention« per se; I simply chronicled her life from 1939 to 1992, and this was her path: a lonely childhood in Graz, Vienna, drama school, theatre, Austrian and German films, international career, and finally unemployment, poverty, cancer. I wish the book had a different ending. I wish I could have interviewed her in person. I wish she could celebrate her 75th birthday next year.
Why is it, do you think, that so many beautiful women from that era as actresses ended up in so much despair like Karen Schubert, Anita Ekberg, Sylvia Kristel…?
They were, in a way, victims of their time and fame. They were brand marked as »sexy« or »hot«, but weren’t considered »serious actresses«. Bardot was clever: she knew that and didn’t depend on fame. She could quit easily when she was in her late thirties. Once you’re brand marked in this business, it’s almost impossible to change your path. The Italian and Spanish movies of that period — the late 60s and early 70s — didn’t have great character roles for beautiful actresses. It was a bit different in England, France, and Germany, though. Romy Schneider was offered one powerful role after another, Liv Ullman had Bergman, Hanna Schygulla had Fassbinder, Julie Christie managed to be both, a sexy star and a versatile actress. The Italians, apart from the grand seigneurs like Visconti, De Sica, or Elio Petri, created another kind of cinema in which beautiful actresses had to be beautiful, period.
Had Marisa Mell not died so early on in her life, how do you think she would have regained her life back in overcoming her poverty and despair?
It’s impossible to give a proper answer to this question. You cannot »plan« success, not really. If you could, there wouldn’t be any flops anywhere. But her last movie, »I love Vienna«, was a remarkable success in Austria, and her first really good film in 15 years. So, yes, maybe this could have led to a comeback if she hadn’t gotten so ill. Also, by 1996 both Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci had gained a new cult following, movie buffs rediscovered their early works. Through this renaissance, Marisa has gained a late recognition. If she had lived to experience it, I’m sure that young filmmakers in the likes of Tarantino or Eli Roth would have cast her in their movies.
If she was alive today and you would meet her, what is the most important question you would have liked to ask her?
»Why are you so afraid of getting to know yourself?« — And I’d let her know that she’d touched many, many people with her vulnerability and strength, not just her beauty.
Thank you, André, for this interview!
For more information on this book, see this entry: Die Feuerblume.
You can order the book through these venues: