Filmmaker Barbet Schroeder on “Amnesia”

Director’s latest centers on German ex-pats in 1990s Ibiza

Jul 21, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Barbet Schroeder’s nearly six-decade-long career touches on so many fascinating eras of cinematic history. Schroeder cut his teeth in the 1960s, producing films by and working alongside several of the best-known filmmakers of the French New Wave, including Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer. It wasn’t long before he stepped behind the camera himself, traveling to Ibiza to shoot the 1969 drug film More, with its landmark soundtrack by Pink Floyd. (Their score for his second feature, The Valley, would be released as the band’s Obscured by Clouds album.) More features followed, including the chilling documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, about the Ugandan dictator, and Koko: A Talking Gorilla, about the San Francisco Zoo’s most famous simian.  

In the 1980s, Schroeder fought a long, hard battle to make his first Hollywood feature, Barfly, a semi-autobiographical movie penned by poet Charles Bukowski. The movie was finally released in 1987, but only after Schroeder famously entered the offices of the Cannon Group with an electric saw and threatened to chop off his fingers unless they agreed to make the movie. The film, which starred Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, was a critical success.

Schroeder continued to work in Hollywood, turning out successful features such as 1990’s Reversal of Fortune (which earned him an Oscar nod for Best Director) and the 1992 hit Single White Female. As the industry changed, Schroeder split his time making films between the United States and Europe. In that time, Schroeder’s most-acclaimed work was The Advocate of Terror, his 2007 documentary about controversial defense lawyer Jacques Verges.

Amnesia is Schroeder’s return to the director’s chair after a long hiatus that included only a 2009 episode of Mad Men. The film is set on the Spanish isle of Ibiza in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin wall. Martha (Marthe Keller), an aging German ex-pat, develops a relationship with a far younger man from her homeland. Jo (Max Riemelt) has come to Ibiza in hopes of becoming a DJ at the famed electronic club Amnesia, and using that to spread his own brand of music to eager listeners. It’s a deeply personal film for the 75-year-old director, who took inspiration for the film from his own mother’s life story.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Some reviewers have described this movie as a tribute to your mother, and there are some similarities to be drawn between Martha’s background and hers. Can you tell me a little about your inspiration for Amnesia, and where your desire to tell this story began?

Barbet Schroeder: I don’t speak my mother’s tongue. That comes from a very strange decision that my mother took when she was 16, to get out of Germany [before WWII]. She got out with her mother and a cellist, who was actually the lover of her mother, and he was Jewish. In the real story, he was also her lover; he was with the mother and the daughter at the same time, but I didn’t put that in the movie because that would have been distracting. In the story in the movie, she was in love with someone much older than her, and so the romance that she has with young Jo, who is arriving from Germany, is echoing that other relationship, the first love that she had, where she was young and the object of her love was much older. Now, the parts are reversed.

Right after the discovery of the [concentration] camps, she decided to never speak the language again. It was a very extreme decision: she chose also to never drink German wine, or drive a German car, et cetera et cetera. And later in her life, she had an affair with a very young German boy who was coming to Ibiza to make a career in the techno industry, which was just beginning at the time. I decided that this would be an interesting background; an interesting starting point for a story. A love story without sex, but with a lot of desire, and pleasure, and excitement to see each other, all of that. So, I thought this was original, and a way to show the relationships to the past through different generations of Germans.

Between finding financing and developing the script, I’ve read that it took you somewhere around five years to put this movie together.

Yes – I’m not sure about five years, but that’s close. I think it was a little less, but that’s not far.  

Barfly’s path to the screen was very long, difficult, and well-chronicled. Aside from that film, would you consider Amnesia on you labored over more than others you’ve made?

Yes, definitely, definitely. It was a long fight, once you have a subject that not everybody wants to do. In this case it was the German co-producer that dropped out at the last minute. In Barfly, it was the fact that nobody believed it was going to be a life-affirming story. They all thought it was a drama about alcoholism. Sometimes you have projects where everybody has a perception that is negative, but when the movie is finished they finally see that it is the opposite. [Laughs] Hopefully!

With a film as small and dialogue-rich as this one, it had to have been necessary to find the best-suited actors. Was the casting process for Amnesia a long one?

Of course – it was the most extensive and profound. I was totally engaged on my part. It was never going to be a movie that was so important to me without that. I’ve never done a movie where I didn’t believe 100% in the casting. Very often I had all the money to do a movie, but the person I wanted for a part didn’t want to do it, or wasn’t available or something like that, and I gave up. I gave up many projects because the casting was not absolutely perfect. That was a rule I always had, all my life, and of course it applied here more than ever.

I consider this an American movie. We have two characters, they’re both speaking English, and there’s only 20% German [language] through the whole movie. So, basically, they have to speak perfect English so that it’s understandable by the German public. It’s not easy to find actors who can be themselves in a foreign language. In the case of Marthe [Keller], of course it was pretty obvious after so many years of Actor’s Studio that she was perfect for the part. But with Max Riemelt, I was so lucky because he had an American father-in-law that was speaking English at the house. So, his English was perfect.

You’ve worked with your cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, for more than 25 years, and you’ve broken a number of technological barriers with the advanced digital cameras you’ve used to make your features. What drives that progress? 

Well, we try to experiment. I’m always ready to explore and experiment. The only movie which [Luciano] could not do was Our Lady of the Assassins, which was the first [film] shot on digital, high definition video. That was never done for a fiction movie before. I discovered there the possibility of shooting with multiple cameras. Before then, we were doing economical movies where the film stock was a very important part of the budget. We couldn’t have multiple cameras running at the same time. It would have been too expensive. And now, with Our Lady of the Assassins, I had three cameras.

When I came back to Hollywood after that to do Murder by Numbers, I worked with Luciano and I explained to him what I like to do with three cameras. Of course, I’m eternally grateful to him for solving the problems with lighting multiple cameras. This is a headache for any director of photography. We managed to do pretty well, I think.

Of course now, with Amnesia, we managed to make another big jump, which was to use 6K definition. It’s huge – it’s three times the size of 35mm. That was another revolution that was less obvious than the one in Our Lady of Assassins, but in a way it was more important for the evolution of cinema.

Music plays such an interesting role to me in this movie. For Martha, music is an important but long-buried and painful part of her past; for Jo, it’s equally important, but it’s a major part of a future that he hopes for.  On a personal level, do you find music to play a substantial role in your own life, creatively or otherwise?

Of course, of course! In my life, and in my films. The first movie that I did in Ibiza, in this same house, was More. It had the music of Pink Floyd, which was essential for the movie. In this case, I’m dealing with somebody who is actually a composer of the new music that was emerging in Ibiza in the 1990s. This techno music started there. I tried to be as faithful as possible to the way that the music was composed and performed. It’s an important part of the life of the character. He’s a musician that thinks he’s going to change the perception of this music – he doesn’t see himself as just a moneymaking guy who’s just providing cheap entertainment to 10,000 people. In Ibiza, there are serious composers, and he’s one of them in my mind. I was able to contact one of the great composers of that music, Luciano, and steal a few hours of his time to help me with the music of this movie.

This film marked your return to Ibiza. You shot More there nearly 50 years ago. What were some of the changes you saw on the island, over the years between when you made those two films?

To tell you the truth, these movies were shot mostly around that house, and [the area] around the house hasn’t changed much. There were just one or two new houses that weren’t close, they were quite far. I could erase them easily, and restore the look to the way it was in 1990, when the action takes place. The surrounding of the house was still the same, basically.

Your films are always moored by a fascinating central character, be they fictionalized ones inspired by real people – such as Martha here, Charles Bukowski in Barfly, or Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune  – or documentary subjects, like General Idi Amin and Jacques Verges. When considering projects, is it the character that draws you in before the story, premise, or anything else?

Always. It’s always the character that creates the story. It’s always the psychological approach to the character that makes the movie come alive.

You mentioned that you consider this an American movie. It’s a film where Germans are speaking English in Spain. As a filmmaker, you’ve never seemed to work within any set national borders, making films all over the world with multi-national crews. Are there any nation(s) with which you identify yourself as a filmmaker?

Well…. [long pause] Columbia, America, France, and Switzerland. Something like that. [Laughs]


Amnesia is now playing in select cities. To read our review of the film, click here.


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