Opening 1 May 2014
This is a movie I did not enjoy, and I’m giving it only two stars because of that. It took me an hour of sunshine on the Elbe River to recover from it. The acting is excellent, but the storyline is desolate and not very convincing. The movie tells the story of a woman called Lena (played by Maria Schrader) who loses her memory due to a bout with a fever that causes brain damage. In particular, her amygdala and hippocampus are affected, which are located in the cortex of the brain, the part that makes humans different from other animals. (This is the biologist in me speaking.) The affected areas are those in which emotional information is processed and in which short-term memory is converted to a long-term mode. The damage causes Lena to lose part of her biographical memory, the part known as episodic memory, as I discovered in an on-line search. As a result she loses all memory of past experiences, emotions, relationships and people. And apparently she is unable to reactivate such capacities for future use.
What Lena retains is called semantic memory, that is, factual knowledge and the ability to accumulate facts. She can still learn things by rote, even though she doesn’t really “feel” or understand them emotionally. She learns to imitate laughter, recite things she wrote in her diary, and say the words “I love you.” And she does this with great skill. But her behaviour is robotic. Lena also still has intact procedural memory, “knowing how,” as it is called. This kind of memory is encoded in the evolutionarily older part of the brain, the cerebellum, also called the “reptile brain.” Knowing how includes sex, and Lena is definitely still capable of that, as the movie shows in graphic detail.
Lena has sex with a complete stranger called Roman she meets by chance in a revival service and thinks nothing of telling her husband Tore (Johannes Krisch) about it. Roman is depicted as a kind person, but you wonder why a truly empathetic person would want to have sex with a woman who is obviously mentally disturbed. For some reason Lena’s husband Tore isn’t aware of the consequences of her amnesia, maybe because he spends his time up on scaffolding repairing the cathedral in Cologne rather than consulting with her doctors and checking the internet. Anyway, in the end he decides he can’t take the changes in her personality anymore, but still has no reservations about having sex with her.
I don’t know what message the author and director, Jan Schomburg, intends to convey with this movie. It leaves me with the feeling that the horrors of a terrible kind of amnesia have been exploited in order to allow a brilliant actress to display her talent and show lustful sex. The movie tells you nothing about how Lena “discovers a new self” as some of the comments in the internet suggest, because there is no new self to be discovered. Lena’s old self has been destroyed and she is forced to construct a new one, one that will always be deficient because she has to get along without some very basic neural resources. I would rather have learned in greater depth how someone copes with everyday life without episodic memory. (Pat Nevers)