Review: Amnesia (Schroeder, 2015) – MVFF 2015

Still from the movie Amnesia

When I visited Berlin in 2011, I was struck by how much World War II was still very much in the public consciousness of the country. One woman I  met in a professional capacity explained about her childhood feeling of shame in being a German. This over dinner and drinks. The sense of guilt, responsibility, remembrance–so opposite of what we Americans seem to do with our troubled history–was wonderful to me.

But, in Barbet Schroeder‘s film Amnesia, sexagenarian Martha Sagell (Marthe Keller) is less than impressed by the way modern Germany has moved on from the war. It’s the 1990s, and the Berlin Wall has just fallen, but Martha is far away from the commotion. For “too long to be considered a tourist,” she has been leading an off-the-grid life on the Spanish island of Ibiza. In fact, Martha hasn’t set foot in her native Germany since she was a girl. Yet, despite her long absence, she maintains an active and uncompromising anger toward her home country, boycotting its cars, its wine, and its language, which she hasn’t spoken in decades. One day, a young German DJ and electronic music composer named Jo (Max Riemelt) moves into the house up the slope. Unhampered by the significant age gap, the two begin a rich and rewarding friendship.

From the start of their relationship, Martha insists on speaking English. She also derides Jo’s Volkswagen as a “Hitler-mobile” and declines his Riesling. Thinking her a vociferous eccentric, Jo does not suspect that Martha is herself German until she accidentally slips one afternoon, revealing that she understands the language. The revelation requires an explanation, which Martha provides by relating a traumatic incident she experienced during the war. The horrific scene seared in her memory, she vowed to carry her outrage with her for the rest of her life–the only way she could account for the horror she witnessed. But to Jo, whose family remained in Germany and helped “rebuild” the country, such a principled stand seems both outdated and ineffectual. Their differences in opinion, however, don’t lessen the warmth they feel for each other. Not until Jo’s family visits do matters come to a head.

Schroeder’s film is a meditation on Germany’s responsibility for its past. How does one protest one of the most unspeakably terrible events in human history, especially when one’s compatriots were active participants in the atrocity? Does such a protest, carried out far away and with no material consequence, have any meaning? What kind of atonement is required of Germans? Does “voluntary amnesia” equal complicity? And is it morally acceptable to be proud of being German? Schroeder debates the answers to these questions in a Brothers Karamazov-like dialogue between Martha and Jo’s mother (Corinna Kirchhoff)–a gripping exchange, albeit unsubtle.

Though Schroeder raises an interesting topic, the premise–the quasi-love story between an elderly lady and a young man in distant EDM-obsessed Ibiza–is a strange narrative wrapper for his explorations. The execution (particularly the ending) is a bit sentimental, too. But overall the mashup is both stimulating and enjoyable, if a bit awkward. And the 90s details are nice, too, for those prone to nostalgia (and old enough to remember that decade).

Amnesia, which premiered at Cannes this year, will have its U.S. debut at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Tuesday, October 13, at 7 pm in San Rafael. There will be an additional screening the next day at 12:30 pm, also in San Rafael. Director and writer Barbet Schroeder is expected to attend at least one of the showings, so the Q&A session is sure to be interesting. Get your tickets early!