There’s something ineffably Hitchcockian about the setup of Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesia. It’s set in 1990 on the breathtaking coastline of Ibiza, where sixty-something Martha Sagell (Marthe Keller) occupies a sprawling property disconnected from much of society. The interiors contain more secrets than material goods. The walls throb with the unspoken and the repressed, starting with the antique cello she never plays, the photograph of a mysterious man and, we soon learn, her philosophical revulsion with German cars, German wine — German anything.
This aversion will be put to the test by the presence of her new neighbor, Jo (Max Riemelt), an up-and-coming 25-year-old electronic music composer from Berlin who appears at her door with a wounded hand and an insatiable curiosity. They begin a friendly relationship, one that teeters precariously on the romantic, handled by Schroeder with maturity and plausibility.
But it’s the unsettling undercurrent that recalls the Master of Suspense at his most molecular. The studious viewer will file away the movie’s accretion of meaningful details, expecting them to attain significance later: the fawning visit from a local wine merchant Martha’s age, and the contemptuous stare he receives from a jealous Jo; the revelation, when the movie’s unorthodox lovers share a rowboat, that Jo is not a proficient swimmer; Jo’s abrupt disappearance from a café with a pair of friends.
Yet Amnesia fundamentally subverts our expectations. As Martha and Jo’s first encounter suggests, this is a film about healing — of people, of a nation — and it’s consequentially the most substantive feature of Schroeder’s uneven career. (His documentaries, by contrast, have always been substantial and piercing.)
Its subject, which unravels with elegant patience, is the challenge of coping from something as un-copeable as the Holocaust. For Martha, who escaped Germany as a teenager during the war and hasn’t returned, the only moral decision is to condemn the country for eternity, disavowing its language and culture, and shattering the fallacy of the good German. For Jo, who read about the atrocities in textbooks, it’s “ancient history — the war was 50 years ago!” Isn’t the rational response to rise above the Nazis crimes against humanity, and make sure they don’t recur?
Schroeder, with the sensitive help of three fellow screenwriters, is careful not to take sides. He expresses empathy for both positions, each equally logical. He then throws two more spokes into this philosophical wheel: Jo’s mother Elfriede (Corinna Kirchhoff) and grandfather (a heartbreaking Bruno Ganz), who visit Jo, and who bring a firsthand account of life during the Third Reich.
Thus, we get perspectives from four characters and three generations forced to confront what a nation has swept under its collective rug, from Martha’s righteous avoidance to Ganz’s creation of gallant fictions to soften his own sordid reality.
This is a film that’s engineered to ignite fierce debate, and its novelistic richness provides all sides with ammunition. If it inspired its own CliffsNotes, they would focus prominently on the double entendre of the title: Amnesia happens to be the nightclub where Jo has been booked to DJ, an event that could elevate his career. It also reflects the perceived German tendency to forget — the collective amnesia that can allow a nation that spawned Hitler to enjoy the prosperities of its economic miracle. As Elfriede argues, “I didn’t want to wallow in catastrophe. I had better things to do.”
There’s little moral rectitude there, but wouldn’t most of us say the same thing? Amnesia may be, above all, an unassailable argument for dialogue, a theme whose universality increases as the gap between our cultural silos widens. After regrets are unburdened and traumas exposed, the exchange of viewpoints and perspectives can still engender healing. And as Amnesia’s touching climax reveals, it can create innovative music, too.
AMNESIA. Director: Barbet Schroeder; Cast: Marthe Keller, Max Riemelt, Corinna Kirchhoff, Bruno Ganz; Distributor: Film Movement; Opens: Friday, Aug. 11, at Coral Gables Art Cinema, and streaming VOD