Director Barbet Schroeder is a man who has never been afraid to pursue his passion. His journey as a filmmaker has resulted in some of the most captivating stories ever put to film. From “Barfly” to “Reversal of Fortune” to “Single White Female” to “Our Lady of The Assassins” and beyond, Schroeder continues to challenge himself with the material he takes on and push himself to his creative limits. His latest cinematic tale is no exception. “Amnesia” takes place in the early ‘90s and follows Jo, a 25-year old music composer who just moved to the Spanish island of Ibiza. He has come from Berlin and wants to be part of the nascent electronic music revolution, ideally by first getting a job as a DJ at the new nightclub,Amnesia. His neighbor, Martha, has lived alone in her house facing the sea for 40 years. One night Jo knocks on her door. Her solitude intrigues him. They become friends, even as the mysteries around her accumulate: that cello in the corner she refuses to play, the German language she refuses to speak. As Jo draws her into his world of techno music, Martha puts everything she previously lived by into question. Called “Barbet Schroeder’s cinematic valentine to his German expat mother,” by Scott Foundas in Variety, “Amnesia” is a haunting masterwork where loss of language is a symptom of denial. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Barbet Schroeder and Marthe Keller to discuss their unique careers, their passion for creation and the challenges of bringing ‘Amnesia’ from script to screen.
Ms. Keller, you created an impressive body of work through the years. How did you get involved with the arts?
Marthe Keller: I had a girlfriend that was about 10 years old who was in ballet class. I wanted everything like her from her dress to what she did. Everything! Because she was rich and I was not so rich she took me to the ballet class and I wanted to be a dancer. Then I had a ski accident and, by accident, I became an actress. I was not interested in acting early on, only dance. That’s the way it started. Then I had an audition and I got a scholarship and I went to the Stanislavsky School. From there, I went on stage. I did all the stage work in Berlin. Then Philippe de Broca, a French director, came and saw me and hired me for a French movie. I changed many countries within this business! Everything that happened to me was an accident. Nothing was calculated. The only thing I wanted that I didn’t get was the ballet because I had the accident. But every time I had an accident, it led to a good thing. Had I not have had that accident, I would be without work today because I would be too old to dance but I’m not too old to act! [laughs]
Which of your early roles had a big impact on you and your craft?
Marthe Keller: The first time I was on stage, I was fired right away because I was a dancer and I had a high, high voice. I was talking in that way because we were bred in a very bad way in practical dance. Everybody laughed! It was a classic and a sad story but everyone was laughing at my voice, so they fired me. I didn’t know what to do. I went to Berlin. The small cities didn’t want me and before I stopped, I wanted to go to Berlin and try it there. They hired me right away for the biggest part in Shakespeare and Moliere. Of course, during this time, I was certainly working on my voice. The voice went down and everything was fine. I started very badly but I kept trying. Then everything came without even audition. The next accident happened was I needed money during the summer and I got this movie in France in 1968 during the revolution. I couldn’t go back because everything was blocked. I stayed in France, I didn’t want to stay but I couldn’t go back. I also fell in love with the director of the movie, of course. Then we had a baby and everything else. Nothing was prepared! Just accidents! I stayed in France with Philippe de Broca and had a beautiful son. Then one day, John Schlesinger saw me on stage in Paris and he was looking for someone for “Marathon Man.” I got that part and I moved to Hollywood! It was always accidents! I don’t prepare! I don’t like it when I know what I am doing. I like improvisations! I worked a lot with music because I was homesick for dancing. I started to work with all the most beautiful orchestras in the world with “Joan of Arc.” I was all over the world! Then someone said, “Why don’t you direct an opera?” I ended up at The Met with Don Giovanni. I did so many different things and I was so lucky I had these opportunities. When you speak four languages, you have more possibilities to work in different countries, so you always work! If I am not only onstage, then I am onstage with music and doing movies and television or directing operas! That is the way I always doubled my work!
Mr. Schroeder, what drew you to cinema early on in life?
Barbet Schroeder: Film was a big problem for me early on. When I first saw a movie, at the age of 7 in Bogota, they had to take me out of the theater screaming and crying. The film was “Bambi.” [laughs] After that, they decided I was too sensitive for movies and they would no longer take me to the theater. I asked my mother later in life, “Why did you take me to see ‘Bambi?’ Everyone knows that this is not a very good movie for small children. You are not a very responsible person!” She said, “Yes but you don’t know that the writer of the film was in Zurich when I was in Zurich.” He was a refuge in Zurich and he had a whole group of people around him and she was part of that group. She had gone from Berlin to Zurich at the age of 16 in 1936. So, over the years, she was there and the writer of “Bambi” was very well known in those circles because “Bambi” was banned by the Nazis. They hated his books. For my mother, knowing the writer and his work was all good and that is how she ended up taking me to “Bambi.” When we were in Paris, I arrived there at the age of 11, I finally got to see only art movies and I began to start looking more and more. By the time I was 14, I was going to the cinematheque every night. One night when I was coming back from the cinematheque, after hours because we had stayed too long in cafes to talk about cinema, there were no more subways and I had to walk back home. In that walk, I decided I was going to become a filmmaker. I knew that was what I wanted to do because every night I was being subjected to so many great films, especially American cinema. I remember, for all of my life, a retrospective of Howard Hawks that for me was a revelation!
Mr. Schroeder, you made a name for yourself because you pursued your passion for filmmaking. What are the biggest challenges you faced throughout your career?
Barbet Schroeder: For me, the word career doesn’t exist. I just do whatever I feel, one project after the other. I have to feel totally passionate for every single aspect of that thing. Sometimes I manage to get them made and sometimes not. Of course, over the years, it becomes more and more difficult. The budget has to be squeezed more and more each time but the passion is still there. Now, I have managed to make two movies back to back and they are among my favorites! I don’t know what the reason of the secret, except that I know you have to be ready for everything and keep fighting no matter what. I’m making more and more movies that have no chances to be made. When I did “Barfly,” it was a seven-year fight. I stopped making movies for seven years to make that film. When I did the movie in Spanish in Medellin, “Our Lady of The Assassins,” was almost impossible. I am attracted to difficult, ambiguous projects.
One of your latest films, “Amnesia,” is getting an American release on July 21. What challenges did you face with this project?
Barbet Schroeder: This film was years in the making. The screenplay writing took two-and-a-half years or more. The production was very complicated to set up. Originally, this was a Franco-German co-production and at the last minute, the Germans dropped out completely. At the time, I didn’t realize that there was some kind of a normal reason for that but I couldn’t accept this and went on fighting. Then we managed to make it a Franco-Swiss production and the movie had to be reduced enormously in the budget. Normally, it would not have been made but I managed to make it no matter what!
Ms. Keller, what drew you to the role in “Amnesia” and made you pursue it?
Marthe Keller: It was a classical thing. When my agent gave me the script, I read it. I have known Barbet for a long time but not very well. I know his movies and I would see him because we had some friends in common. I liked the story so much because it made me think of the story of my father, who left Germany for the same reason as the character. He was not Jewish but he left because he felt something was wrong. He left before Hitler came to power. He took his bike and his passport and left the country. The whole story of “Amnesia” reminded me a lot of what I heard from my parents. I have to say that it was done in a very unique way. It’s not a love story or very political but it has a little bit of everything. I think it’s very subtle and never heavy. It’s like Barnet is. It’s discreet and there is a certain elegance without showing too much. You don’t see the concentration camps or my character going to bed with a boy who could be my son. It’s always on the edge and that’s why I love it. I love the unsaid things in life.
What were the biggest challenges of this role?
Marthe Keller: The biggest challenge was how you deal with a love story which could be pathetic. I use the metaphor of saying that if you start to trust people, you can let the past go. Her madness against Germany went away because of this young boy. It’s not a true love story but a platonic love story because she is smart enough to know that if she goes to bed then that is it. The challenge was how to work on a kind of sensuality without pushing it. The rest was easy because when you know the background of something, it’s not a challenge because you know it. I know the background here because of my father’s story. I never had a boyfriend younger than I am, so I am not used to that. It came to making something more sensual than sexual and to bring out something in the character where she opens up to things to which she has normally been closed completely, as she is to Germany. She becomes open through this young kid, who was not born [during that time] and it’s a wake up call to her to say, “Maybe I am wrong for being so stubborn. Perhaps he is right.” And she changes it. That was a challenge. How to work out to stay a woman who is not becoming pathetic because of this love story. He is young enough to be my son! But now with [Emmanuel] Macron’s wife, there would be no problem for us women with young boys! [laughs] We have the opposite now! It’s the same difference! This character and our president! [laughs] I’m kidding! I’m kidding!
What went into finding the perfect cast to bring these characters to life?
Barbet Schroeder: It is the same every time. You just have to go and look at everybody who is in that range, character and language. There are many elements that have to be right. You look and you ask, of course, I didn’t have the money to have a casting person, so I had to do it myself. The list was reduced to three or four people for every part and then I managed to make short essays with Marthe and a few of the German actors. It was really obvious, screamingly obvious that [Max] Riemelt was the guy that had the maximum chemistry with Marthe.
What did these people you cast bring to the characters you might not have expected?
Barbet Schroeder: Well, Marthe was very rigorous and extremely serious about whatever was said. We had looked at every possible angle of the story and every line had been analyzed for years and she still managed to improve quite a lot of things. Details, of course, but very important details!
How has your approach to filmmaking changed through the years?
Barbet Schroeder: I don’t see any big changes but, you see, I’m not much of a cinephile or analyzer. I always have the same adventurous approach. For me, every movie is an adventure. I ask, “What is the challenge of this movie?” I push and I push to find a new challenge and always push to find a new technical thing. I am always looking for something new that can be done. Of course, I was able to do the biggest movie of that kind with “Our Lady of The Assassin,” a Colombian film shot in Spanish. It was the first movie ever to be shot in high definition in digital. No one had ever done a fiction film with characters and story in digital high definition. It was incredibly complicated technically but I was determined to do that for a certain aesthetic reason. I ended up being part of the technique’s history because hardly anyone uses film anymore, so it was the beginning of something. For “Amnesia,” I was the first one in Europe who used 6K definition, which is almost three times the definition of 35mm.
Where are you headed when it comes to filmmaking?
Barbet Schroeder: I just finished a movie in time to show it in Canne. It opened in Paris and will be playing there all summer. It’s in 10 theaters and it is called “The Venerable W” and it is a documentary about a Buddhist monk in Myanmar.
What is the best lesson we can take from you as a filmmaker?
Barbet Schroeder: I don’t know. I hate to give lessons. [laughs] I hate to be the one giving lessons because everyone has to learn his own rules, especially in cinema where there is no traditional rules. Everyone has to invent, discover and explore his own rules. I guess one of the basic rules is to never give up trying to do the movie you want to do and never give up what you believe, of course!
Ms. Keller, you always have irons in the fire. What is next for you?
Marthe Keller: My next project starts in a week. Unfortunately, I can’t say it because it is confidential but it’s a very, very famous American thing that I’m doing! It’s so famous that you will faint when you find out and I am playing the leading part! We start shooting in a week. I am also doing two other movies right away, which I have also been signed. It’s no illusion! I just keep working! Once I start working, I just go with it and I don’t dream too much before. When someone asks me, “Which would be your favorite part,” for me, a part which I like is a part which someone gives to me. I’m a very insecure person sometimes but when someone gives me a part I know they believe in me! Another thing I have to say is very strange. The last 10 years, almost every movie I have made I have played Jewish. What is that? Where does that come from? I just finished a week ago where I was Jewish and the movie before I was Jewish as well. I don’t look especially Jewish. It’s funny to me because I am so attracted to these characters. I’m haunted by it. Of course, I was too young and born after but still I’m from a country, I’m not but my father was, that did these horrible things. It was our century and the worst thing that was ever done. It stayed with me. When I was very young and in the theater in Heidelberg, I couldn’t help being in a bus and thinking, “What did he do 20 years ago. And him. And him. Where was he?” All the men, I said, “Where was he and what did he do during that time 20 years ago?” Even the play I played on Broadway, “Judgement in Nuremberg,” it was related to that. It’s very funny. Do I choose those parts or is it because they come to me because I feel like I am still cleaning up for something which is my origin? I don’t know, it’s funny. It’s very interesting!
I want to thank you for your time today and I wish you continued success.
Barbet Schroeder: Thank you so much, Jason.
Marthe Keller: Thank you so much for your kindness. I hope you have everything!
Barbet Schroeder’s ‘Amnesia’ was an Official Selection of the 2015 Cannes International Film Festival. The film will at Cinema Village in New York and VOD on July 21st, 2017.