Over the years, several foreign film directors such as France’s Patrice LeConte (Monsieur Hire) have told me they turned down offers to work in Hollywood for fear they would be giving up the freedom they have as a filmmaker in their country.
But that was not the case for Barbet Schroeder, the Swiss-German, Iranian-born filmmaker of such documentary and narrative features as 1974’s General Idi Amin Dada, 1975’s Maitresse and 1990’s Reversal of Fortune.
When he came to the U.S. to make the acclaimed 1987 Barfly, poet/author Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical drama, it was a dream come true.
“I always admired American movies,” said Schroeder, 75. “When I came to America, the cinema was in bad shape, [but] there were still movies that wanted to be made by studios. I was looking to have a partner who would be able to help me with the screenplay and introduce the psychological complexity I was attracted to. I think all of the movies I made in America are great and are among the best I did.”
Schroeder, who was in his early 20s when he formed the production company Les Films du Losange with legendary French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, will be visiting the Aero Theatre this Friday through Sunday.
Screening Friday will be Barfly, starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, and Reversal of Fortune, featuring Jeremy Irons’ Oscar-winning performance as Claus von Bülow. (Schroeder also received a nomination for Best Director.) Saturday’s offerings are his first film, 1969’s More, and 1972’s The Valley (Obscured By Clouds), both which feature soundtracks from Pink Floyd.
And on Sunday, Schroeder will introduce one of his most personal films, 2015’s Amnesia, starring a luminous Marthe Keller as Martha, a woman living simply - and isolated - on the island of Ibiza in order to escape her past. But her life changes when she develops a strong but platonic relationship with young German (Max Reimelt) named Jo who has moved into a cottage near her to work as a techno DJ in a club called Amnesia.
“It’s like a grown-up movie,” said the Swiss actress, best known to U.S. audiences for 1974’s And Now My Love and 1976’s Marathon Man.
The drama, she notes, “is about something. It’s so subtle about everything. Even the love story, which is not really a love story. Everything is between the lines.”
Schroeder slowly unveils why Martha, who was born in Germany, refuses to speak the language or even drive German cars. Though not Jewish, she left her home country during the war for Switzerland because of Hitler and the Nazis. And when she began to hear about the atrocities at the concentration camps, she decided to cut herself off completely from Germany.
Schroeder’s German-born mother Ursula, who married a Swiss geologist, also she stopped speaking German because of the war, eventually moving to a cottage in Ibiza which doubles as Martha’s home in the film (Schroeder also used his mother’s house in More).
Schroeder noted that Amnesia is strongly inspired by his mother’s life. “I did try to have somebody who looks as much as possible like my mother,” he said. ‘“What was interesting to me was that the drama all the characters were going through was because of Germany, because of the country and because of the language. The language became a dramatic tool, which usually don’t see that [in movies]. It’s very bold. It’s very crazy to try to use language as a dramatic tool.”
Just as Martha, his mother became very close to a young German man. “I was going to see her from time to time on Ibiza, like once a year,” he offered. “One year, she introduced me to this young Germany boy, or man. She said to me she was in love with him. That was true love, but, of course, it was platonic. I was amazed at their relationship and the relationship of her with the friends of him and so on.”
Though they had a “long” love story, “eventually it ended, but very gracefully because he married and had a child with another woman,” said the filmmaker. “They were still living in the house next door, the wife of the man was coming every night to watch the sunset and my mother would join them. Two of them watching the sunset with a baby. I said ‘Oh my god, imagine we make a movie where we start with those three and we go into a flashback ten years before. It seemed I had all the cards in my hand. I said ‘I know how to tell this story.’”
Schroeder’s mother Ursula is still alive. “She’s going to be 102 in a few days,” he said, adding she has moved to another house that is more convenient for the nurses who take care of her. “She’s bedridden. In the morning’s she’s super, super sharp and full of humor. She saw the movie and said we speak too much German in this movie.”
Keller never met Ursula. “I didn’t want to meet her because I didn’t want to be influenced,” she said. But she certainly identified with her
“My father was German and left Germany before Hitler came to power,” she said. “He took his bike and his passport and he said that’s it, I can’t stay here. I don’t want to speak this language again So he drove away.”
There’s a pivotal sequence in Amnesia in which Martha gets into an argument with Jo’s mother (Corinna Kirchhoff) and grandfather (Bruno Ganz), who decided to remain in Germany.
“The same scene happened also to me as a child,” said Keller. “I was perhaps eight years old when my uncle who stayed in Germany came to us and he talked to my father. My parents thought I was sleeping, but I was listening. I heard those two brothers talking and my uncle says to my father ‘This was so easy to leave. It was much more difficult to stay and try not to become a Nazi.’ I always remembered because still today I’m so happy my father left. Because if not, I would probably be the daughter of a Nazi.”
Schroeder said that he didn’t want any of the characters to be perceived as right or wrong about their decisions. Martha thought “the Germans are trying to bury the past somehow. It’s arguable that she’s wrong. Actually, I made room for the argument in the movie when some people attack her. This was very bold of me to attack my own mother. But I felt I had to do it because I had to have it that no one was completely right.”