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Interview with AMNESIA director Barbet Schroeder

July 18, 2017

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After “Barfly”, his underrated 1987 riff on Charles Bukowski, Swiss director Barbet Schroeder produced and directed a handful of intense dramas and thrillers in the early-to-mid 90s. One of which, 1990’s “Reversal of Fortune”, earned Jeremy Irons an Oscar, and the others – the roommate thriller “Single White Female”, a remake of noir classic “Kiss of Death” and the underrated Hitchcockian thriller “Murder By Numbers”, all included some complex characters. His latest drama, “Amnesia”, which premiered Out of Competition at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2015 and is just now receiving a release here in the States, revolves around a pretty complicated character in possibly Schroeder’s most personal film to date.

If you’re only familiar with Schroeder’s work for major Hollywood studios, you’ve been missing out on some solid documentary work and low-budget indie treats from the filmmaker.

For “Amnesia”, Schroeder goes back to his roots, filming on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza off the coast of Spain, which is where he shot “More” his 1968 feature-debut that heavily showcased music from Pink Floyd. That film and his latest were shot in and around a white chalet near Sant Antoni de Portmany, owned by his mother, where she lived for over 20 years. It’s only fitting since the main character played by Marthe Keller (“Marathon Man” and “Hereafter”) in “Amnesia” is based on his mother. Her story, which Schroeder co-wrote with Emilie Bickerton, Peter F. Steinbach and Susan Hoffman, is loosely based on his mother’s experience, yet the overall aim is to examine how two people from Germany who are generations apart, view themselves and their native country.

In the film, Keller plays Martha, a sixtysomething German woman who for years has lived in a mountainside chalet on the island of Ibiza, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea off the eastern coast of Spain. She left Germany when she was young just as World War II was starting, after learning of the atrocities of the concentration camps and realizing her Jewish friends starting to disappear. Her secluded life is disrupted when a twentysomething Joe (Max Riemelt) moves into the chalet below her from Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hoping to make his mark as a DJ on the nascent music scene on the island, in particular the nightclub called Amnesia. The two gradually hit it off and develop a close admiration for each other, with a somewhat hesitant Martha helping him to acclimate to island life and Joe introducing her to his music, which helps draw Martha out of her solitary routine.

Things get complicated when Joe is surprised to learn that Martha is German, despite not speaking to him in their native tongue. He can’t understand her reasoning why, nor why she refuses to drive a German car or drink German wine. When Joe’s mother (Corinna Kirchhoff), a successful doctor in Germany and his grandfather (Bruce Ganz), who had worked in a concentration camp long ago, arrive for a visit, both the perception and perspective of Germany during the war and nationalism is brought to light. The result of that visit challenges how Joe views his family and finds Martha reevaluating her long stance against the country of her birth, which leads both of them to examine the status and future of their relationship.

Schroeder was in New York this week to promote “Amnesia” and we chatted briefly over the phone, where we talked about returning to Ibiza to shoot a film, working with Marthe Keller, experimenting with technology, and the kind of timeless impact this movie can have.

Check it out….

 

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: Have you always wanted to make about your mother and how closely was this based on her own experiences and perspectives?

BARBET SCHROEDER: I wanted to do that for quite a long time, but basically it was the idea to do a chamber music type of movie. You know, she listened to chamber music, which is reduced to the essential form of art and very simple and small. So, the idea was to do that with trajectory of my mother and not really have her persona. Marthe didn’t meet her and I didn’t try to correct her to be exactly like my mother. What was fascinating to me was somebody who makes a decision at age sixteen and sticks to it till the end of her life. That was really the important thing. And of course, I had done my first movie in that house, “More”, with music by the Pink Floyd and always wanted to do a second movie. So, this was the one.

DJF: Well, that was a curious aspect to me. You’re kind of coming full circle back to Ibiza. Obviously, you’ve changed, but did you feel like the environment has changed much since your first film?

BS: It has changed enormously with the modern world reaching the island since I arrived in Ibiza in 1951 when my mother bought the house. It was the same as it was in the 30s, when a few German intellectuals were smoking in the cafes there. So, the life of the island, the traditional clothing, everything was still there, until the end of the 50s. After that things started changing. But, the place where we were, where we had the house, it never really changed so much and when I wanted to be sure that it was like before, I just erased a few houses around that were, ugh, not nice to my eye. So, I had the extreme pleasure of erasing them, but they were like two or three, no more.

DJF: Marthe Keller has a such a luminous and natural presence, what new elements did she bring to the character, that was maybe an unexpected or delightful surprise for you? 

BS: She was totally dedicated. She knew that her part was important for her, because of her story. She went all the way in trying to understand every little angle and making suggestions that were always good because she is very very intelligent. So, it was a magic collaboration for me.  The shooting was so hard, so to have somebody totally dedicated next to me was essential for me.

DJF: Speaking of collaborations, this is the eight time you’ve worked with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Did either of you approach this film differently than your previous seven projects?

BS: Well, you know, I like to experiment when I do a movie. I always do a technical experiment at the same time. I believe that in cinema the technology and the technique is so important, as important as the painting was when it came to the Impressionists, because it was a new kind of painting that allowed for certain things that were not possible before. So, I think that whenever I see something new, I’m always trying to be there and try to see what I can take out of it. In the case of “Amnesia”, I saw that there was a possibility to use a definition of 6K, which is three times the definition of film, basically. So, this is like an extreme jump for a low-budget movie to take. So, we ended up doing it in 6K. That was crucial for the movie, because it allowed many things included – well, it’s too complicated to go into right now, it would take to much time. But, this was essential and we were so excited. The other thing that we did was, here was a character that is living without electricity and at night, she was using candlelight and petrol lamp. So, she was living in a very primitive and spending like five dollars a week at the time. So, the idea of using too many candles was not in the budget of the character. So, she was using the petrol lamp and we decided to go for the absolute truth and reality of the light she used. That was a big choice. That was very hard and we kept it and it added some kind of real flavor to the movie.

 

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DJF: I definitely noticed that and appreciated that approach. Since this was a story you wanted to tell, what was your writing process like once you collaborated with the other writers? Did the story turn into something different all together?

BS: No, it was always a film about Germany. It was always a film about the perception of Germany through different generations. It was always a good idea that somehow there was a turning point when the people starting speaking German to each other. It would create a new chemistry and conflict. So, language is used as a dramatic tool and it was something very exciting to me.

DJF: In the screenplay, one thing that stood out for me was this term “voluntary amnesia” and I think it’s somewhat of a real life universal approach to burying certain aspects of your past. Was that something you found relatable or something you were especially intent on presenting to the audience? 

BS: Absolutely. Absolutely. You can’t help thinking that after the war there was some form of voluntary amnesia that was fought by the different German governments with a very willful way and actually quite successful, where they forced all the people in the schools to actually study and be aware of what happened. But, still somewhere there was people subjected to voluntary amnesia and there is voluntary amnesia on the part of the Chinese government when it comes to Tiananmen Square, for example. This was obviously a policy that had been decided right from the top that people should forget about Tiananmen Square and they succeeded. I mean, the percentage of Chinese people in China that are aware of what happened in Tiananmen Square is minimal. So, that counts too. That is somewhere in the movie somehow.

DJF: I think it’s a very relatable aspect of the film. Something that can connect with any viewer, regardless of where they live. There’s always something about our history that the government – or people in general due to trauma – are trying to move away from. 

BS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think the story of “Amnesia” can happen with some exiles of Syria. Somewhere, one day, what happened to Syria will be part of a dark past.

DJF: Oh, I definitely hope you’re right. I want to thank you for your time and for making such a thought-provoking film that will introduce many to beautiful Ibiza. 

BS: Okay. Thank you very much.

 

 

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“Amnesia” opens in the States on July 21st on VOD, but will have a limited theatrical run in Chicago, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from July 28th thru August 3rd. 

 

 

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