Directed by: Wolfgang Fischer | 94 minutes | drama | Actors: Susanne Wolff, Gedion Oduor Wekesa, Felicity Babao, Alexander Beyer, Inga Birkenfeld, Anika Menger
Almost daily, fishing boats with refugees leave for Europe, in the hope of finding a future there. They risk their lives in their desire to cross the ocean. In the west there is a lot of indifference and the economic interest regularly takes precedence over humanitarian duty. Of course there are organizations like Sea Watch, Borderline Europe and Doctors Without Borders, but the general public seems ‘refugee tired’ and generally doesn’t care about these people. The Austrian filmmaker Wolfgang Fischer (‘Was du nicht siehst’, 2009) was inspired for his film ‘Styx’ (2018) by the true story of a German woman who made a journey across the Atlantic Ocean on her own sailing yacht. “Refugee boats and pleasure craft are increasingly meeting each other. What if as a solo sailor you are confronted with the drama of a sinking fishing boat with about a hundred people on board? What does that do to you, how do you deal with that when you know that the Coast Guard protocols are that you can’t interfere with anything?”
Rike (Susanne Wolff from ‘Return to Montauk’, 2017) is a confident woman in her late thirties who works as a doctor in the emergency department of a hospital in Cologne. A tough job that demands a lot from her, and to let off steam she decides to make the crossing with her sailing yacht from Gibraltar to Ascencion, a volcanic island halfway between the African and Brazilian coasts with a unique flora and fauna described by Charles Darwin. She leaves completely on her own, but Rike turns out to be a woman who can be good alone. Moreover, a woman who knows what she is doing, who is well prepared and who is pragmatic. She doesn’t have much contact, except through the ship’s radio. A passing freighter warns her of an approaching storm off Mauritania and although it makes her a little nervous, she stands her ground when her sailboat is caught by wind and water. The next morning she discovers a stranded refugee boat a few hundred meters away. She hears people screaming for help, some even jump into the water. Dutifully, Rike reports to the Coast Guard that a boat is docked and people will die if help doesn’t arrive soon. The Coast Guard’s response is cold: it’s good that they reported it, but don’t let them interfere. As a doctor, it is completely against her nature not to intervene, so she brings a boy (Gedion Oduor Wekesa) who has jumped into the water to nurse him. As soon as the boy comes to, he shouts that his sister is still on the boat and that she must also be rescued. When there is no sign of a lifeboat after ten hours, Rike decides to put her fears overboard and save whoever can be saved.
A loner who fights against the elements on a boat, we have seen that before (for example in ‘All is Lost’ (2013) with Robert Redford. What is special about ‘Styx’ is the moral dilemma that Fischer presents to his viewers: what Rike is torn between her sense of moral duty and the rules, laws, and regulations she has to obey, and she ends up doing what she thinks – being a doctor – is the only right thing, without Fischer seeing her as a heroine. Susanne Wolff presents a fine example of acting. In a bare script and with little dialogue, it is mainly her body language and facial expressions that allow her to express herself, but she manages to hold our attention without difficulty. Fischer plays with contrasts (the superbly prepared Rike versus the fugitives desperately clinging to their ship; a westerner’s leisurely pleasure over the matter of life or death for the e Africans) and in doing so makes his audience think.
‘Styx’ was filmed almost entirely on the water – the stretch of Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Sicily – and looks impressive. Again that contrast: the dreamily rippling blue of the ocean opposite the raging waves that bring death and destruction. The sea claims its prominent role thanks to the sophisticated work of director of photography Benedict Neuenfels (‘Die Fälscher’, 2007). ‘Styx’ is one of those films that makes you think: what would I do if I was in the situation Rike is in? Wolfgang Fischer has rid himself of all superfluous ballast and returns to the essence of life. Thanks to the fantastic images actually filmed at sea and a fascinating Susanne Wolff, you are glued to the screen.
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