Subtext isn’t exactly Barbet Schroeder’s primary concern in Amnesia, his first dramatic feature since 2008’s poorly received Inju: The Beast In The Shadow (which never even got a U.S. release). It’s one thing to give your movie a title that spells out its theme—in this case, the willful refusal to contend with past horrors, as practiced by Germans of a certain age. It’s quite another, though, to construct the narrative for such a project around a nightclub that’s actually called Amnesia. This is a real place, as it happens—you can find it in Ibiza, where Amnesia is set, and it was founded well before 1990, when most of the film’s action takes place—but that’s no excuse. Schroeder wrote the screenplay with three collaborators, and it’s hard to believe that not one of them thought to say, “Yo, Barb, don’t you think that’s maybe just a wee bit on the nose?” Especially since their script also saddles the cast with blunt dialogue, laying out ideas at the expense of credibly evasive and self-protective human behavior (to say nothing of realistic conversational rhythms).
That’s mostly in the second half, though. At first, Amnesia appears to chronicle a platonic romance between Martha (Marthe Keller), a German-born woman in her 60s, and her new neighbor, Jo (Max Riemelt), who’s about three decades younger. Jo likewise hails from Germany, but Martha insists on speaking English with him, pretending not to understand when he talks to friends in his native tongue. She also declines an offer of German wine and insists on taking her own car rather than Jo’s Volkswagen. These hints of past trauma remain in the background until Jo receives a visit from his mother and grandfather, and polite chitchat over lunch leads to a discussion of what granddad (Bruno Ganz) did in World War II. Decades of lies to his family crumble under Martha’s interrogation, while Jo’s mother (Corinna Kirchhoff) points out that pretending not to be German isn’t a sign of mental health either. Will all of this angst prevent Jo from realizing his long-held dream of becoming a famed EDM DJ at Amnesia?
Every shot of that club’s neon sign is like a clonk on the head, especially as it becomes clear that Jo’s presence in the story—as aspiring DJ, age-inappropriate love interest, and proud young German—is really just a means of engineering the lengthy, climactic showdown with his father. Thankfully, the film stirs to life for that stretch, simply because Keller (who’s actually Swiss, perhaps best known to Americans from Marathon Man) and Ganz (definitely best known to Americans as splenetic Hitler in a zillion re-subtitled Downfall memes) are such consummate pros, capable of mining genuine emotional catharsis from a contrived situation. Schroeder was reportedly inspired to make Amnesia as a tribute to his mother, who left Germany not long after the Nazis came to power and never wanted to return; he even shot the film in the house where she lived for many years (which was also a major location in his 1969 debut, More). But neither he nor his co-writers managed to prevent their ostensible subtext from swamping the text.