Film Review: Amnesia (2015) Dir. Barbet Schroeder
By Belle McIntyre
What begins as one of those intimate romantic tales which take place in absurdly picturesque sun-drenched locations, which make the unlikely seem possible, takes an unexpected turn into a much more philosophical and metaphysical direction. Do not misunderstand me. This is not a heavy-handed investigation into the issue which ultimately turns out to be the point of the film.
It is, however, more than the leisurely-paced character study that it starts out as.
The opening scene is of a glorious sunset with an elegant elderly woman on a terrace overlooking a breathtakingocean view with a rocky promontory in front and a sparkling bay below. Immediately, it cuts to ten years prior and the same woman, Martha (Marthe Keller), in that same location explaining, in no uncertain terms, to a visitor that she has no intention of returning to Berlin to sign the papers necessary to facilitate the sale of her property there. He speaks to her in German and she responds in English. We are now in the 1990’s shortly after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.
Her next visitor is unexpected, a charming young man who introduces himself as her new neighbor and has come for some medical aid as he has just burned his hand on his electrical equipment. He is a tall, blond and boyishly hunky in an unselfconscious way and attempts to speak to her in halting German-accented Spanish. She insists on speaking to him in English and treats his burn with aloe and wraps the hand while they size each other up. He is Jo Gellert (Max Riernelt) and has come from Berlin to Ibiza, well-known for its techno-music scene, to work as a DJ. However, he has bigger aspirations for himself. He is also a creator of electronic music and has brought all of his equipment with the intention of creating new compositions.
Martha, an attractive single woman of a certain age, has lived alone on Ibiza for undetermined decades. The only part of her past which she claims has to do with her prior life in Switzerland. She lives simply, without electricity, in a sparsely decorated white washed house surrounded by woods and a garden which she cultivates lovingly. Her only notable objects are a cello and an old photograph of a sternly suited man which sits nearby. She is reticent to speak about the significance of these things. We know next to nothing about Martha.
As she and Jo become familiar with each other they develop an easy, platonic relationship and they each teach the other new things. As they become more comfortable with each other she tentatively opens up. But she is firmly against all things German - from the wine, the cars and the language. So when Jo hears her speaking German to a friend, he is shocked and hurt, and confronts her with what he considers a betrayal of their friendship. He correctly accuses her of constructing layers of protection around herself.
Martha’s revelations about her German past explain her reaction to all things German. It is her coping mechanism with the horrors which she observed. This comes into direct opposition with the various behaviors of the German’s who stayed in Germany and do not have the option of blocking it or denying it. It is so complex and all-encompassing even to this day. It is not at all what one expects from this story which began so leisurely. When Jo’s parents come to Ibiza and Martha challenges their behavior and belief system it is painful and somewhat brutal. There is no clear-cut right or wrong.
Unanswered is the question of how to deal with national guilt. What is the solution?
Is it immoral to put it behind and press on with a new outlook. Must one dwell on it forever?
The only incontestable truth is that the residual damage caused by wars and genocide are like radioactive substances which have a long half life. The horrors which are committed and witnessed linger on and contaminate the psyches of all who are exposed to it. Important to mention is that the titleAmnesia does not overtly refer to this existential dilemma. It is the name of an actual hot techno-music spots in Ibiza. Coincidence? You decide.
The ending which cuts forward to the ten years later where the film opened is a brief and satisfying coda. This story is apparently an ode to Schroeder’s mother who lived her life as an expat in Spain. It is lovingly filmed, directed and acted. Marthe Keller sensitively portrays a fascinating character and is wonderful to watch. Mercifully, her scenes with Jo never become squirm-inducing. That is the sign of a good director. I left the film thinking that it was slight, but the questions which it posed are still lingering with me. So, I must have been wrong.