Director: Barbet Schroeder
Cast: Marthe Keller, Max Riemelt, Bruno Ganz, Corinna Kirchhoff, Fermí Reixach, Marie Leuenberger
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 7/21/17 (limited); 7/28/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 27, 2017
In the decades she has been away from Germany, Martha (Marthe Keller) has made many assumptions about the country she called home as a child and the people within it. She refuses to drive or even ride in a German automobile. She won't speak of Germany. Her father left her a home in the Black Forest, and her only thought is to sell it. To take the house or even to check out what condition it is in would be to step foot in that country. That, Martha insists, will never happen.
She lives on the island of Ibiza now. There are some new residents in the area. They are German. The young man who has moved into the house on the hill above hers arrives with a burn on his hand. He asks for some water in broken Spanish. Martha responds in English. The topic of the German language comes up later. She says she doesn't speak it, but there are two ways of interpreting that statement. When the young man talks with his friend in German, she responds silently—with a smile or a grimace or a nod—without them seeing it.
It's not exactly a lie—her saying she doesn't speak German. We know what she means before she tells Jo (Max Riemelt), her new neighbor, who's an aspiring DJ trying to get some attention to move his career forward. It becomes closer to a lie, though, when she hides the fact that she can speak and understand the language from Jo and his friend. They believe one thing about her, and instead of setting the record straight, she allows them to keep their shared assumption for her own benefit.
This is a movie that is centered on that notion of setting the record straight. There are two subjects at the heart of Amnesia. The first is the reason Martha wants nothing to do with anything about Germany, which, in the movie's setting of 1990, is coming to terms with its most recent history. Martha is of another age. She grew up during the years of World War II and its build-up. She wasn't around for the decades of division, between the East and the West. In a way, she is stuck in the past, living in solitude in the house by the sea, with a cello left unused on a stand next to a framed photograph of its previous owner. There is only one history she wants to remember, and it's a history that she is convinced the entirety of Germany is set on forgetting.
Jo believes that he knows about that history from school, but it's nothing that he has considered in any meaningful way. He knows the stories of his grandfather (played by Bruno Ganz), who was "one of the good ones," according to Jo. Jo's mother (played by Corinna Kirchhoff) came of age at a time when Germany needed to rebuild. She became a doctor, because that's a profession she believed would be beneficial to the nation. That sort of thinking is what brought Jo to Ibiza. With his home country united again, Jo isn't exactly in a profession that's beneficial at a time of great change, but music is his dream and his passion.
The bulk of the movie (written by Emilie Bickerton, Peter F. Steinbach, Susan Hoffman, and director Barbet Schroeder) is made up of conversations between Martha and Jo, who share a love of music, good food, and little else. They have a memory of Germany, of course, but the memory for each of them is as different as can be. As a teenager, Martha fled with her mother to Switzerland. She didn't experience the war in Germany, but she saw the results—a bus filled with starving, nearly dead children from a concentration camp.
Jo asks if Martha is Jewish. She says she isn't, and he asks why this history means so much to her. There's a divide here that cannot be crossed, let alone joined.
This brings us to the movie's second central subject, namely the relationship between Martha and Jo that has nothing to do with the past and everything to do with the future. There's a spark between these two, despite the differences in age, experience, and belief. They both feel it, although only Jo brings up the topic. Martha beats him to finishing his thought about what they could be by saying it's better to leave it unspoken—to let it be whatever it is. In a way, Martha, who refuses to talk about the past until Jo has earned her trust, is continuing her tendency to ignore something difficult. In another way, though, her silence on the matter of her feelings toward Jo is contradictory to the way she pushes back on the way Jo's mother and grandfather avoid the truth.
The vital difference is that the movie directly confronts the past, particularly in a key scene in which the grandfather tells his defining story from the war, while avoiding the matter of the relationship, which becomes the focus in the last act. Add to that the feeling of discomfort in how the movie makes an indirect correlation between the Holocaust and this unspoken romance, and Amnesia feels as if a second, lesser story has been ripped from and haphazardly shaped out of a challenging one.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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