The thorny subject of German historical memory binds the characters in Barbet Schroeder’s “Amnesia,” a thoughtful, sensitive character study that reps a minor-key comeback for the veteran Swiss filmmaker, helming his first theatrical feature since the critically and commercially drubbed “Inju” in 2008. This low-budget passion project — a second career reboot of sorts, following the director’s acclaimed “Our Lady of the Assassins” in 2000 — also serves as a homecoming for Schroeder, returning him to the Ibiza location of his 1969 debut feature, the druggie classic “More,” and to a story inspired by events in the life of his own mother. The result is a leisurely paced, talky two-hander that always has its heart in the right place, even when its dramatic engines aren’t running at full blast. Older arthouse audiences of the “Woman in Gold” persuasion could take to this, despite the lack of marquee names.
Like Schroeder’s own mother, the central character here, Martha (Marthe Keller) is a non-Jewish German woman who left Germany shortly before the outbreak of WWII and, repulsed by the atrocities of the Nazis, never returned. As if that weren’t enough, she also refuses to speak German, drink German wine or ride in a Volkswagen. When “Amnesia” begins, the time is 1990, a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Martha has been settled for decades in Ibiza, where she lives a quiet, lonely life in a small hillside home with panoramic Mediterranean views. That solitary routine is interrupted by the arrival of Jo (Max Riemelt), a 25-year-old aspiring DJ from Berlin who’s trying to break into Ibiza’s burgeoning electronic dance music scene. He rents a house just up the hill from Martha’s, and they meet-cute when he shows up on her doorstep in search of a bandage for a badly burned hand.
From there, these unlikely companions start spending more time together, and something of a platonic romance blooms: She reveals a few fleeting details of her past, including her own musical background; he introduces her to the throbbing sounds of techno. It’s a relationship with echoes of the one between Blythe Danner’s widowed chanteuse and Martin Starr’s slacker pool cleaner in this year’s Sundance breakout “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and as in that movie, the actors here bring an honesty to scenes that constantly verge on the cutesy and cornball. (“The Best Exotic Marigold Rave Party” this is, thankfully, not.) Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Schroeder and his three co-screenwriters (Emilie Bickerton, Peter Steinbach and Susan Hoffman) are marking time a bit in these early stretches of the film, which also introduce an ultimately superfluous subplot about Martha’s landlord trying to sell her home out from under her.
Jo’s dream is to perform at an Ibiza dance club called — wait for it — Amnesia, which it turns out is a real, internationally renowned EDM hotspot, though that still doesn’t stop the name from seeing a tad too on-the-nose given Schroeder’s larger themes. But for viewers who can get past such periodic narrative contrivances (and clunky dialogue like “I record sounds and then I loop them. It’s called looping”), Schroeder makes it easy to get caught up in the sun-soaked local scenery and the charms of his two leads — especially Keller, best remembered by American moviegoers as Dustin Hoffman’s duplicitous girlfriend in “Marathon Man,” who’s still teasing and girlish at age 70. It’s only around the one-hour mark, however, that “Amnesia” fully springs to life, when Jo’s concerned mother (Corinna Kirchhoff) and grandfather (Bruno Ganz) arrive in Ibiza — a situation that forces both Jo and Martha to come to terms with the pasts they have, for different reasons, fled.
As he did four years ago in the Liam Neeson thriller “Unknown,” Ganz enters the frame and, for 20 minutes or so, commandeers the movie with a vivid, lived-in performance as a man who has spent so long telling a sanitized version of what he did during the war that he’s begin to believe it himself. It’s here that “Amnesia” turns into the kind of study in moral responsibility and sociopathic tendencies that has always intrigued Schroeder, from his documentaries on Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and controversial defense attorney Jacques Verges to Hollywood efforts like “Reversal of Fortune” and “Single White Female.” And as usual, the filmmaker refuses to offer any easy answers to some unsettling questions about the human capacity for self-delusion and what some might call evil.
There are a lot of compelling ideas afloat in “Amnesia” that never fully congeal, but the undeniable sincerity and personal commitment of Schroeder’s vision help to carry the film over its rough patches. Ibiza looks picture-postcard radiant in the pristine HD compositions of regular Schroeder d.p. Luciano Tovoli. Swiss house/techno DJ and producer star Lucien Nicolet (aka Luciano) serves up the film’s bassy, pulsating score.