Film Review: Amnesia

Fascinating yet somewhat schematic character study focusing on a young German musician and his relationship with a middle-aged German woman that delves into the connective thread between modern Germany and Germany in the ’30s.
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His first film in nine years, Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesia is a flawed yet layered character study centering on a youthful German musician and a middle-aged German expatriate. It explores the knotty connective tissue between modern Germany and Germany of the Holocaust years; the average citizen’s culpability for it back then and his/her interpretation, reinvention and/or denial of that seminal horror now. The narrative is set in the early 1990s.

Specifically, it tells the story of Martha (Marthe Keller), who has been living alone for 40 years on the Spanish island of Ibiza, and her new neighbor Jo (Max Riemelt), a 25-year-old composer and aspiring DJ who has recently arrived from Berlin to soak up Ibiza’s iconic electronic-music scene.

Jo is drawn to Martha on several levels. She’s an attractive, flirtatious woman and her maturity is a turn-on. She’s also a figure of mystery with her self-imposed solitude, refusal to speak German, visit Germany or buy German products. And then there’s the cello in the corner of her living room that she will not play.

From her vantage point, Jo is welcome company, a pleasing diversion, and intriguing as a young German and by extension the New Germany. So too are his Berlin-based pals who make a few brief appearances. They are a tad too self-assured, but they’re not without a certain puerile charm. Their cockiness is spawned from innocence.

It’s no fluke that the events unfold in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and German Reunification. It’s the dawn of a new era in Germany. More than metaphorically suggestive—and the historical framework is that—the drama could not take place much after that period.

A pivotal character who arrives towards the end of the film is Jo’s grandfather, Bruno (Bruno Ganz). Within a few years he’d be deceased and the complex issues this film addresses would not embody the same degree of personal resonance or urgency. As it is, the whole premise feels somewhat out of synch even in the ’90s (it should have been set 10 to 15 years earlier), strains credulity a bit and at moments seems schematic.

The title spells it out, though interestingly enough there is a Club Amnesia, a hot EDM night spot in Berlin, and it’s precisely where Joe most wants to land a gig. One assumes the disco’s name references a druggy haze (sweet oblivion from the workaday world) that can be achieved there, but it’s hard not to read more into it. Of course, more than one image or symbol can be at play.

Martha, a Gentile, left her native country shortly before the outbreak of World War II and, revolted by Nazi atrocities, never returned. (Her story is not unlike that of Schroeder’s own mother and some have suggested the film is a tribute to her.) Throughout the movie, she reveals tidbits of autobiographical information including her intense feelings—perhaps made more intense through the distorting lens of memory and collective guilt—for a young Jewish man who played the cello and ultimately disappeared. Decades down the road, those experiences continue to define and silence her, now more so than ever. She’s atrophied. 

Her friendship with the genial Jo, who justifiably feels no responsibility for what happened in Germany 60 years earlier, challenges not simply her moral universe but the core of her being. Still, when she meets his mother Elfriede (Corinna Kirchhoff) and grandfather Bruno, she can’t help wondering what they were doing during those years and almost immediately Bruno is spewing forth a convoluted and contradictory account of his activities as a German soldier.

With each telling, it’s a constant reinvention. Elfriede accuses her father and concedes his guilt (within parameters) to Martha, but without expressing any remorse. Whatever the ambiguity of what he did or didn’t do, he was not blameless, thereby confirming Martha’s worldview and destroying Jo’s. Jo has loved his grandfather over a lifetime and now discovers that a central figure in his life may have been evil. On some level he probably always knew it, but thanks to Martha he sees it.

But the most thought-provoking exchange takes place between the two women, when Elfriede suggests that Martha’s life is also an expression of reinvention and denial, especially in contrast to her own. She remained in Germany and, by virtue of doing good (she is a physician), she has moved forward both personally and on behalf of her country in a new era that she helped create.

It is an original insight and rare in the never-ending outpouring of trivializing and repetitious novels and films dealing with Holocaust and the Third Reich. Still, there has been a sea change and Amnesia is part of it.

Until fairly recently, conventional wisdom viewed Germans as a monolithic Nazi collaborating bloc. Today, it’s not as easy to level collective blame. Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, the extraordinary novel made into a shockingly dishonest film, and Anthony Doerr’s overrated and equally disingenuous best-selling All the Light We Cannot See are classic examples of the new genre and sensibility, their success or failure notwithstanding.

The recently released, grisly and sentimentalized drama 13 Minutes, recounting the experiences of an ordinary German citizen who attempted to assassinate Hitler, is yet another example. Last fall we had Alone in Berlin, also inspired by a true story—that one zeroing in on a middle-aged couple who attempt to sabotage the Nazi machine after their son is killed. While Berlin raised more questions than offered answers, it was a vivid contribution to the new genre whose subtext is that unexceptional Germans fought back and more to the point they were just like everyone else and, given the right circumstances, anyone could have been swept up in a maelstrom of Nazism without understanding any of it.

Amnesia is in no way an apologist for Bruno; quite the contrary, but it gives his descendants a voice, a new voice. Yet the climactic scene is so telescoped, it’s contrived. Would strangers meeting at a dinner party immediately launch into an impassioned discussion of historical events (soul-shattering though they were)? I don’t think so. 

There are credibility problems throughout the film, from Jo’s shocked realization that Martha understands German—why wouldn’t she?—to the appearance of a real estate broker who surfaces with prospective buyers for the house Martha has been renting for four decades. She had no warning that her house was for sale, and its potential loss is devastating as it underscores her false sense of security and fragility in the face of transience. That’s a revealing detail, but it’s a snippet that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere.

Nonetheless, there is much in this low-key picture to recommend it, most pointedly the growing bond between Jo and Martha that never morphs into an affair, though Jo would like to take the relationship to the next level while Martha keeps him at arm’s length—her reluctance an amalgam of private reserve and public decorum coupled with her enduring loyalty to a man who has been dead for decades.

That said, she never loses her playfulness. On a rowboat together, Jo tells Martha he can’t swim, provoking her to rock the boat back and forth until he tumbles into the water. He’s never in any real danger, but her gentle taunting is not without menace that is at once frightening and seductive.

Keller pulls all the threads together seamlessly; Riemelt is fine too as the smitten young man; and Kirchhoff’s depiction of a composed woman belying a lifetime of turbulence is spot-on. But the film belongs to Ganz, who is charismatic as a delusional (perhaps sociopathic) figure truly believing every false twist and turn in his account as he’s speaking it.

It’s clearly a personality type that fascinates Schroeder. (Think Reversal of Fortune or Single White Female.) Amnesia represents another homecoming as well. His 1969 debut feature, More, dealing with addiction and debauchery, was also set on Iziba and notable for its Pink Floyd musical backdrop. In both films, the pristine, breathtaking natural setting serves as a splendid contrast to the dark themes that are explored.

Luciano Tovoli’s cinematography and Franckie Diago’s production design are exquisite, and the music eliciting time and place, from the classical chords of Martha’s youth to Lucien Nicolet’s percussive electro score which informs Jo’s world, is impressive too. Not coincidentally, the final scene features German youngsters dancing wildly to the techno beat; their mindless gyrations, and all that they evoke, are arguably regrettable but certainly inevitable.

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