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Styx

[…] While survival of a mediocre storm (tended to by Woolf with strain but no panic) relieves some of the regular suspense of lost at sea narratives, it is the company of another vessel that pierces Rieke’s solitude and re-heightens the tension to present a major turning point.

[…] The film effectively shows through the silent struggle transfigured on Woolf’s face that moral choices cannot be made either with cold utilitarian calculations, or by prioritising universal deontological values.

Rieke, adroitly played by German actress Susanne Woolf (Das Fremde in mir, 2008) is strong, resilient, capable. We enter her hectic world where she is as an emergency-trauma doctor patching the wounded. She looks tired, apathetic – a machine going through the motions. From Germany to Gibraltar, we join her on the “Asa Gray” (named after an 18th century botanist); it is a stunning sloop sailing boat that she methodically fills with a massive number of supplies indicating a long journey, that we soon understand is to take her to Darwin’s artificially planted paradise, Ascension Island, off of the West African Coast in the Atlantic Ocean.

Filming ensues with an even pace. We watch Rieke (Woolf’s) expert handling of the vessel. Precise, well-organised and measured, she is an even keel, never missing a beat. There is a detailed attention to each action in long scenes; it is observational, but not in a documentary way. Woolf single-handedly tends to every need of the boat’s movement, meeting the elements in challenging choreographies: tacking multi-coloured ropes smoothly into stainless steel spools, ducking under sweeping booms, tucking away swinging sails, and shuffling “Suzuki style” along narrow passages across the hull. There is a strong dramatic tension building underneath these seemingly insignificant activities, an overwhelming fear as awesome as the deepness and unpredictability of the blue-black ocean that slaps quietly at the bobbing boat. While survival of a mediocre storm (tended to by Woolf with strain but no panic) relieves some of the regular suspense of lost at sea narratives, it is the company of another vessel that pierces Rieke’s solitude and re-heightens the tension to present a major turning point. Could it be a pirate vessel adding a level of drama that the film had so far in its gentle advance avoided?

We experience a steely grey remoteness in Rieke’s eyes which reflect endless horizons, and in the body of water on which she remains buoyed for eventual transformation. Floating along this sea expanse, we wonder if this choice of an island so distant and remote is a metaphor of her interior?

The Atlantic-Gibraltar passage has become an alternative gateway for Africans seeking refuge in Western Europe. While the Libyan to Italian coastline using the Mediterranean Sea has, and still is, the favoured route, stricter patrolling and the closure of Italian ports has seen an increase in refugees attempting to reach Southern Spain. The Atlantic now proving to be a deathly channel to Hades as the film title suggests. The ungainly vessel that Rieke spies through her porthole is a sinking boat full of African refugees, mainly children, screaming for rescue. For the remainder of the film we witness her involvement in the most difficult of moral dilemmas, switching off the ease and optimism that landing in Darwin’s man-made paradise had promised.

Rieke is joined by a young boy (Gedion Wekesa Odour) who manages to swim to her boat. She learns the gravity of their situation, deepening her dilemma and ruling out the coastguard’s advice to leave immediately. Director Wolfgang Fischer and Ika Künzel (co-writers) present the two-horns: If she helps, then she may risk her life and provoke the death of many as they scramble on to her small boat sinking it (“killing”), or if she sails on saving only herself and another, she risks the lives of many if the coastguard does not arrive in time (“letting die”). The film effectively shows through the silent struggle transfigured on Woolf’s face that moral choices cannot be made either with cold utilitarian calculations, or by prioritising universal deontological values. Feelings, worry, panic, pouring all energy into what is possible, exhausting all those possibilities, and waiting, just waiting for something to change are the modes of moral conduct that become Rieke’s lived experience. Transcending this specific problem, we are forced to think of this at a different scale and reflect upon the reality of confusion in our ethical choices.       

The slow arrival of the coastguard provokes both our anger and the intensity of Rieke’s situation. It is much easier to accuse the nations to which the refugees flee of an inhumane attitude when we are morally confused or unable to accept harsh realities. The film makers masterfully bring this to our attention with a subtlety that parallels the overall understated tone of the dialogue and cinematography. A background radio voice informs us of the numerous overcrowded vessels to be saved or intercepted at sea: Rieke’s plight is not an isolated one. The coastguards are the unfortunate ferrymen and women who often, like Charon, carry the souls of the deceased in black garbage bags to their afterlife.

Ascension Island’s artificially lush eco-system developed as a result of many different species of plants growing and surviving together with little conflict—much like the barbary macaques and urban population of Gibraltar that star in the opening scenes of the film. If this is the metaphor that Fischer strives for with Styx, then he artfully demonstrates the absurdity of such an anthropocentric ideal when it comes to one of humanity’s greatest crises.

First published: September 21, 2018

Styx | Film | Wolfgang Fischer | DE-AT 2018 | 94’

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