Release Date: July 21, 2017
Director: Barbet Schroeder
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 92 minutes
Ibiza, 1990. It’s a time of transition for the small Mediterranean island. The last vestiges of its relative anonymity as one of many Balearic locales owned by Spain are disappearing, rapidly replaced by its new reputation as a global hub of the nightclub and house music scene. In Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesia, set during this time, two residents of the island demonstrate the divide well.
One is an older woman named Martha (Marthe Keller), who has lived in a nice, seaside villa for several decades. Her new neighbor, who has moved into a house down the road, is Jo (Max Riemelt), a young, up-and-coming DJ who’s looking to expand his career by landing a spot at the turntables of an exclusive club.
At first, it seems as if they have little in common, but as they get to know each other, similarities emerge. Both have credible musical experience – Martha as a classical musician, Jo as a pioneer in EDM. They have personalities that bounce off each other quite well. Yet one shared trait stands out: both are German. It comes as a surprise to Jo, a native Berliner, that Martha never acknowledges it, going so far as to flatly refuse to speak the language, with their conversations exclusively taking place in English.
Her objections to her background stem from the war and the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. She feels that the entire nation acted as accomplices by allowing these things to happen, and has decided never to return to her home country, thinking about it as little as possible. Jo is stunned by Martha’s resolute, stubborn refusal. He digs deeper into her reasoning, and in the process, both learn things about themselves and each other that challenge steadfast notions.
Amnesia’s most critical scenes take the form of long conversations in single locations. They’re written effectively and paced modestly, but they demonstrate a key flaw with the film’s structure – that there’s no sense of location or scope. This is a movie that feels like a filmed play. Exposition is crammed into these blocky talks, with following events either meekly confirming what’s been revealed or laying the groundwork for another setup.
The central question – why Martha refuses to acknowledge her German heritage – is answered well before the third act, leading to the rest of the story lacking dramatic heft. This ends up hurting the best sequence in the entire movie – a tense lunch between Martha, Jo, and Jo’s visiting mother (Corinna Kirchhoff) and grandfather (Bruno Ganz), which takes place relatively late in the runtime.
Ganz, a veteran of German-language cinema, delivers a brief but deep performance that steals the show, bringing together the traumas of the past and the shockwaves resonating to the present. It’s incredibly powerful stuff, but the underlying impact is significantly diminished because it comes off as just another element of the drama. Schroeder’s choice to minimize the staging of his film and to limit the context that the actors can access ends up over-compartmentalizing the script’s philosophical musings.
Even the gorgeously photographed scenery feels flat in a movie that’s so predisposed to structure itself in such rudimentary ways. The acting is good (although no one tops Ganz’s scene), and Schroeder’s experience as a director is clear in his fine ability to command individual moments; but too often those moments feel like an introduction to meaty subject matter that is never given proper dues.
When you can make a few modifications and turn a movie into a play without losing any nuance, there’s a problem. And that’s nothing against plays, either. When you’re in a theatre, you can draw unmistakable energy from the performers. So when stagey settings are seen through the lens of a camera, a distance just grows. The best “bottle” films with interpersonal themes, such as My Dinner with Andre, use their cinematic genes in little details and interactions that wouldn’t have been as meaningful in a big, roomy theatre. Amnesia is comparatively blank-slated.
You have a script with wide-open suggestions for great, substantive debates on history; the nature of humanity; and confrontation of an individual and collective past. You have a cast that works well together and understands the material they’ve been given. You have a director who has clear control over the plot’s evolution. But the glue, the connecting drive that should bring it all together, just isn’t there.