In the early 1990s, shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, many concerned citizens around the world were forced to face the demons which had plagued their nations for half a century. No one felt the wave of emotions more than the Germans, particularly those who were old enough to have seen first-hand the anguish and torment brought about by the Second World War. With Amnesia, whose title references both the popular Ibiza nightclub and Germany’s willful blindness toward its troubled past, Swiss director Barbet Schroeder (Barfly, Single White Female) reopens old wounds to provide a history lesson coupled with its emotional context in the lives of average observers.
Set in 1990, the film showcases Martha (Marthe Keller), a reclusive German expat living in Ibiza after fleeing her homeland from the horrors it allowed to occur. She is forced adjust to life after she finds herself with a charismatic new neighbor, Jo (Max Riemelt), a DJ who is looking for his big break among the blossoming local music scene. Initially an unusual pairing, the two leads strike up an immediate friendship, bonding over their mutual connection to music and the country they left behind.
Forming a relationship based on commonalities, they struggle to wrap their mind around the other’s worldview. Jo is too young, and too preoccupied with the convenience of escapism, for the past to have any weight on him whatsoever. On the other hand, Martha has taken her disdain for German culture to its extreme. She refuses to speak her native language and won’t even entertain the idea of riding in a Volkswagen, proclaiming “The world is full of Hitler’s Beetles. It is like he had been forgiven by all of those millions of drivers.”
The neighbors go out of their way to push each other to expand their horizons. Upon finding out that he never learned how to swim, Martha knocks Jo into the open ocean. Conversely, once Martha tells Jo that she doesn’t drink alcohol during the daytime, he nudges her to join him in a toast (“I think you should break your rule. It’s worth it, I promise.”) There is a constant give and take, as the film never validates one character’s perspective over the other. Instead, our protagonists take great pleasure in learning from one another and finding a serviceable compromise between their worldviews.
Though the film had been facilitating a compelling discussion, fully realizing its characters in an impressively short amount of time, Amnesia loses momentum the moment it abandons faith in the level of awareness its viewers possess. Schroeder brilliantly touches upon multiple facets of a complex issue, but then, for some reason, he feels the need to ditch all subtlety in order for the characters to directly verbalize the lessons they’ve learned. A plot contrivance brings in other Germans to weigh in on their past, seemingly so the movie can tell you precisely what’s on its mind without allowing you to do any of the heavy lifting. Spelling out the themes of any creative endeavor works to negate its potency, all while taking away autonomy from its audience.
There is something unnervingly human about Amnesia. While it is propelled by a discussion that runs the risk of outstaying its welcome, the underlying themes are as relevant today as they would have been during the film’s setting. Framed against a breezy Ibiza backdrop, Amnesia makes for an alluring, if limited, exploration of how to go about working through the skeletons in one’s closet. We could use a movie like this set in the United States so we could dissect one or two of the blemishes on our past.