The title of Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesia, which is set shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a twin reference to the desires of two German expats living in Ibiza. Martha (Marthe Keller), who’s lived a solitary life on the island for many years, is trying to block out her traumatic memories of World War II, while Jo (Max Riemelt), a techno musician, wishes to spin at Amnesia, one of Ibiza’s most popular clubs. The two strike an unlikely friendship after Jo moves into a house near Martha, and Jo’s musical ambitions cause Martha, a musician during the war, to confront the past that she wishes to repress.
Martha and Jo talk at length about Jo’s musicianship, so it’s curious how he’s never seen plying his trade. Jo’s friends routinely visit him and Martha and discuss his musical skill and how he has a good shot at scoring a slot at Amnesia, and yet we never even get a glimpse of that journey. The closest the film comes is when Jo shows Martha his equipment and teaches her the art of looping, but this scene still fundamentally centers on Martha and her creation of the song she’s producing rather than showcasing Jo’s ostensible musical talent. Given that Schroeder actually shows Jo doing the cooking that he also talks about loving, the character may as well be a professional chef.
Schroeder sensitively observes Martha and Jo’s friendship, specifically how her modest wisdom complements his casual and seemingly unconscious naïveté, but the filmmaker is less interested in Jo than he is in Martha and how she wrestles with the past. Even though the atrocities she experienced in WWII have deeply affected her, Schroeder doesn’t use her memories to cloyingly elicit audience sympathies, but to expose how her willful ignorance of the past and her heritage creates contradictions in her overall rational nature; Martha has lived by an odd, self-imposed code of refusing to ever speak in her native German tongue or stepping into a Volkswagen.
After Jo’s mother, Elfriede (Corinna Kirchhoff), and grandfather, Bruno (Bruno Ganz), come to visit him in Ibiza and are introduced to Martha, the conversation eventually leads to the war, and how Bruno’s remorse over his involvement with the Nazi army forced him to embellish his personal history to his family. Through the subsequent back-and-forth argument between Martha and Jo’s family, Schroeder intriguingly conflates Martha and Bruno’s feelings over their vastly different wartime experiences, positing that it’s no less damaging to subtly lie about one’s past than to ignore it completely.
The positioning of Jo as a musician may scan as a matter of convenience, and its screenplay is overstuffed with subplots that aren’t given sufficient follow-through, but Amnesia ultimately delivers rich insights about its main characters’ relationship to their backgrounds. Though the presence of Jo’s family only functions as a means for Martha to reconcile her decades-long rejection of her past, their encounter is enough to place Martha’s relationship with Jo in a different context: What began as a harmless platonic friendship becomes a union between two compatriots who share a common history, albeit two that were shaped through different ways in addressing that history.