Fresh insights are rare and dramatic moments rarer in Barbet Schroeder’s meditation on Germans forgiving themselves for the Holocaust, “Amnesia.”
It’s an apologia with any hint of edge rubbed off, a soft and squishy drama that has so little to come to terms with it leaves one slack-jawed that it fails at even its most modest ambitions.
The great Marthe Keller is Martha, who has lived much of her life in the cosseted, just-enough-cash solitude of Ibiza, Spanish sister island to Majorca and Minorca.
She’s an old woman when we first see her, in 2000, walking the cliffs and staring out at the sea. She is somewhat younger in the film’s long flashback, where our story takes place.
In 1990, vacationers were just discovering Ibiza and the Berlin Wall has just fallen. But don’t broach that subject with her. She lives without electricity, cooks, gardens and takes her dinghy out for rowing exercise in the Mediterranean.
Then young Jo (Max Riemelt of “The Wave”), a musician and DJ struggling to mix his way into fame and fortune, moves in next door. He tinkers with natural sounds to add to his digital dance mixes, and his only goal at the moment is to break into the island’s hot new club, Amnesia, and impress his girlfriend (Marie Leuenberger).But meeting his neighbor changes his focus. Martha is fascinating, an old-timer on the island, plainly a woman of breeding and education. But she’s carrying around a mysterious life-list, things she will not do.
“Please, no German,” she says when they meet after he’s burned his hand. He wants to thank her for the help. A bottle of wine?
Can he drive her to town in his VW convertible?
Not on your life. Can you imagine, she blurts out, the idea that Hitler has been “forgiven by all those drivers?”
Martha is German, lived the war years in Switzerland and resolutely refuses to forgive and forget her native land’s crimes against humanity. The movie tracks her “education” of Jo, and the ways he and his family (Bruno Ganz is the granddad) suggest to her that it’s time to let go, move on.
“Should I have forced myself to forget it?” she demands. She has a point. But so has everyone else. And getting around to hearing everyone’s point of view takes forever.
At least “forever” here is filled with lovely shots of the Ibiza countryside and coast, little reveries in the market, at the stove (paella, etc.), at the cello which Martha gave up long-ago, and in Jo’s “studio.” Yes, Schroeder (“Barfly,””Single White Female”) delights in showing us the ancient technology of DJ-ing, as it was practiced at the birth of Trance.
The few scenes where the debate over Germany’s soul is played out have a poetry to their reminiscences, but not novelty. They have the potential to bite, but are to a one toothless.
Catch the fact that this is a Swiss co-production in the opening credits and listen for an off-the-cuff polishing of Switzerland’s role in World War II’s Holocaust — taking in Jewish children. Tens of thousands were turned away, Jewish fortunes looted, but all that is dismissed with a sinfully myopic anecdote.
Keller gives color and purpose to Martha, but it’s a bloodless character and that deflates the performance. Ganz has a nice scene to play, but it feels trite and played-out coming on the heels of decades of German films wrestling the culture’s conscience about the war.
If you’ve never seen a film where Germans debate their national guilt, the tepid “Amnesia” will have more impact than it would with the rest of us. We’ve seen “Labyrinth of Lies,” “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” “The Nasty Girl,””Ida” and “The Reader” and many others like them. And we haven’t forgotten.
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult subject matter
Cast: Marthe Keller, Max Riemelt, Bruno Ganz
Credits: Directed by Barbet Schroeder, script by Emilie Bickerton, Peter F. Steinbach, Susan Hoffman and Barbet Schroeder. A Film Movement release.
Running Time: 1:31