White walls

Barbet Schroeder on Walter Benjamin, Raoul Hausmann, Pink Floyd and the house in Amnesia

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Barbet Schroeder speaks about the influence of Walter Benjamin and Raoul Hausmann on Amnesia and Ibiza
Barbet Schroeder speaks about the influence of Walter Benjamin and Raoul Hausmann on Amnesia and Ibiza Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Barbet Schroeder in our conversation remembers his famous grandfather Hans Prinzhorn, Walter Benjamin in San Antonio, Raoul Hausmann and the fascinating water system of Ibiza architecture, employing a time frame in Amnesia (for Marthe Keller, Max Riemelt, Bruno Ganz, Corinna Kirchhoff, Fermí Reixach, Marie Leuenberger, Joel Basman) going ten years back to 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, More and the music of Pink Floyd.

Jo (Max Riemelt):
Jo (Max Riemelt): "Basically, it's cubes and every cube can collect the water."

Anne-Katrin Titze: Let's talk about the spirit of place. The house on Ibiza for me resembled the mood of Georgia O'Keeffe's house in New Mexico. Despite the fact that the landscape is very different. Can you tell me a bit about the house in Amnesia?

Barbet Schroeder: The architecture of Ibiza has of course some Islamic influence from North Africa, with the cubes like that. And maybe the New Mexico had some Spanish influence, of Andalusia, of the same type of houses. The thing is that the houses of the peasants of Ibiza are like a wonder of architecture. Many architects were studying them. There are many interesting books about it.

There was a German, called Hausmann who was in Ibiza, discovered those houses and decided to do a whole book. An inventory of houses and how they were built and how it works. Basically, it's cubes and every cube can collect the water. All the water is collected underground - it's not a swimming pool, but it's a huge pool under the house.

It's the water accumulated through the rain. Whenever it's dry, you can have enough water in there for a family to live for a year. The houses are all painted white every year by the inhabitant.

Martha (Marthe Keller) plays the cello in Amnesia:
Martha (Marthe Keller) plays the cello in Amnesia: "This is my big nostalgia."

Hausmann actually had a whole colony of other German intellectuals, poets, painters. And this house [in Amnesia] was influenced by Hausmann, it was not built by him. But it was influenced by him and his group. It was built in 1936 and my mother bought it in 1951.

AKT: Was Walter Benjamin part of that group around Raoul Hausmann?

BS: Yes, he was! Walter Benjamin was actually not far from this house. He was in the fishermen village that was 15 minutes by foot from this house.

AKT: San Antonio?

BS: San Antonio, absolutely. His writing when he described the beauty, the aesthetic and the simplicity of the peasant life, how they can decorate their house - that was our bible in the art department. This is what we wanted to do.

And actually, I didn't have too much trouble because that's also what my mother wanted. And when she started decorating the house in such a simple way, such an essential simple peasant way, it just enhanced the whole beauty of the place.

Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum
Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The house is still in the family?

BS: Oh yes. My mother had to move out of the house because she is bedridden. She is going to be 102 in a few days. She is just a little above in a more modern construction and I take care of the house and I made the movie there. It was the second of my movies being shot there. More with the music of Pink Floyd was the first one.

And we did the editing in the house also. Since we are in the time of digital cinema, we could screen what we had from the editing machine on a huge white wall, as you know.

AKT: The white walls are everywhere.

BS: We had the equivalent of a big cinema and a really high definition quality. Every Friday we could see the movie like in a theatre.

AKT: You employ a frame going ten years back to 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why was it integral for you to have this leap?

BS: Because I had the idea of the movie one day, she [Schroeder's mother] had this group of people and this young man who was in her life. And then over the years, I saw that he was still living in the house up there but he was living with a young woman. And the young woman had a baby. And the young woman was coming every night to watch the sunset with the character of Martha [Marthe Keller].

The two women watching the sunset with the baby. It is the baby that could have been the baby of Martha somehow. Symbolically there was this possibility. And I thought this would be a fantastic way to start the movie and then to go back ten years and to see what was happening before this new couple. It's like a narration device, a flashback.

Martha and Jo performing the lullaby - Wenn Ich ein Vöglein wär (If I were a little bird)
Martha and Jo performing the lullaby - Wenn Ich ein Vöglein wär (If I were a little bird)

AKT: What is your relationship to Germany now?

BS: I wish I had one. This is my big nostalgia. You know, I've grown up in a house where all the culture was - I mean, the painting, the music, my mother was playing the cello, the German music - all this. My grandfather was a great philosopher and art historian, Prinzhorn, who was the specialist of the art of the mentally ill. He wrote the most famous book about that in 1922.

AKT: What is the name of your grandfather's book?

BS: Hans Prinzhorn, Artistry of the Mentally Ill [Bildnerei der Geisteskranken]. So this was all big German tradition. And I love the German language and I'd love to be able to read it and appreciate it. And I've been deprived of that. So I had some kind of nostalgia all my life for that.

Amnesia poster at Cinema Village in New York
Amnesia poster at Cinema Village in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

That's why I was so happy to have her [Martha] play the cello and then read the book of [Eichendorff] poetry and give a little flavour of that.

Read what Barbet Schroeder had to say on editor Nelly Quettier, and the impressive cast of Amnesia.

Amnesia opened in the US on July 21.

Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until Sunday, July 23.

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