The French, who have a phrase for everything, call her La Lumineuse. All it takes to light her, claim her cameramen, is a single candle. Directors say she burns from within. With 40 films behind her, Hanna Schygulla, 42, has been hailed on the international cover of TIME as Europe's most exciting actress. American filmgoers who are unfazed by subtitles have long admired Schygulla's work, especially since 1979, when she starred as a ruthless businesswoman in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun and followed that with triumphs in Lili Marleen, Berlin Alexanderplatz and 1983's A Love in Germany.

The big question is what this art-house darling is doing on U.S. television this week. She's taking on Joan Collins, no less, in a four-night, eight-hour miniseries that NBC insists will give Collins' Sins on CBS a real run for its Nielsens. The vehicle is Peter the Great, in which Schygulla vamps it up playing Catherine I, the calculating peasant girl who became Czar Peter's mistress, wife and eventually empress of Russia. Besides the six-figure salary, the main attraction for Schygulla was the location. Peter was shot in the 11th-century village of Suzdal, 150 miles north of Moscow. "When you first come to Russia, everything seems so dim and dull, like an underexposed photograph," says Schygulla, adding, "Then it gets better after you see it differently."

Hanna got more of the U.S.S.R. than she bargained for. When the production ran over its four-month schedule, Maximilian Schell, who plays the Great One, took a powder, claiming he had other commitments to fulfill. A Schell look-alike named Denis De Marne was rushed in for the final 11 days of filming, and Schygulla suddenly found herself getting lots of close-ups. Recalling De Marne, she says, "What I saw most of was a collar standing up with some eyes looking over it. He was mostly in the dark."

Like Garbo and Dietrich before her, Schygulla is a purposeful woman of mystery. Two years ago she bought her first piece of property, a multilevel, rooftop duplex in the Montmartre district of Paris. She lives alone, has never been married or had children, doesn't own a car and rides the Metro unnoticed. Her residence looks, well, lived in, with a half-empty bottle of Bordeaux and two used wine glasses on the coffee table. Talking about herself is not her favorite pastime. She'd rather recline on her earth-toned divan and contemplate the rain that's falling against the atelier windows. Happiness, she says, "is lying back and imagining things. Sometimes I find it delicious to do as little as possible. Just breathe." Co-star Schell says, "She doesn't speak much, but she thinks sharply. I'm always surprised when she says something." Observes French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, 54, her current beau: "Hanna lives lightly on the earth like a North American Indian. She doesn't have the huge appetite of 20th-century man. She doesn't collect expensive things. She goes with the wind."

The word beautiful doesn't do the job in describing Schygulla. Her looks are constantly open to interpretation, depending on the camera angle. As for middle age, she shrugs it off. "I think I'll go slowly," she says. "I developed slowly. I'm latent in everything." An only child, she was born on Christmas Day 1943 in the Polish mining town of Katowice during the German occupation. (Her father, conscripted into the German army, was captured by American troops in 1944 and spent four years in a POW camp in Pennsylvania.) When the Red Army approached Katowice in 1945, Schygulla's mother fled to Munich with baby Hanna. Their first home there was an abandoned railroad car. When the war was over, Schygulla's father joined his family in Munich. "I met my father when I was 5. He was a stranger to me," says Schygulla. Hard times followed. "There were always fights about money and apartments not being big enough. I never wanted to be like people around me. I wanted more freedom. I didn't want to feel chained."

Her original career goal was to be a schoolteacher. While studying philology in Munich (she's fluent in German, French and English), she decided to take an acting class. There she met fellow student Fassbinder. "One day," Schygulla recalls, "he needed somebody for a play and thought of me. I wouldn't have become an actress if he hadn't called." From 1969 to 1972 she had roles in 16 films and TV shows directed by the prolific master of German expressionism. (He died in 1982, at age 37, from an overdose of alcohol and drugs.) Although Fassbinder was notoriously difficult and domineering (one of his male lovers hanged himself after an argument), Schygulla blossomed under his direction. "He brought out some special energy in me," she says. "He's still there, very much with me. There's never an end with Fassbinder."

Just as success seemed close in 1974, Schygulla fled West Germany and, with a girlfriend, hitchhiked across America. A year later Schygulla returned to Europe in the midst of, as she puts it, "my first mid-life crisis." She settled into a large medieval country house two hours from Munich that she shared with 10 other artists; she still uses the house as a retreat. In 1977 Fassbinder offered her the film that would become his and her masterpiece: The Marriage of Maria Braun. There's been no running away since.

After years of doubts about being an actress, Schygulla seems finally to have accepted her fate. "I've suffered with that damn camera a lot," she says, "but it's like I have a power to touch some people's minds." With that power has come the tiniest trace of ambition for a wider audience. In 1982 she talked with director Alan Pakula about doing the title role in Sophie's Choice, but she lost the part to the more commercial Meryl Streep. If nothing else, Peter the Great is a first step toward winning a mainstream American following. Step two is even more drastic. Next week Schygulla can be seen at neighborhood theaters co-starring in a Chuck Norris epic titled The Delta Force. She plays a Uli Derickson-like flight attendant aboard a hijacked 727, serving such passengers as Shelley Winters and Lainie Kazan. "It's the kind of film I'm amazed I did," says Schygulla. Next up is her first film on American soil, Lulu Forever, to be shot this spring in rough bars and erotic nightclubs around New York City. It's also her first comedy. "I feel a bit shaky about that," she says. And excited too. Once again, La Lumineuse has every reason to glow.

  • Contributors:
  • Pamela Andriotakis.