STYX, a new German release, confronts one of the main crises of Europe, the plight of refugees and the responsibilities and perils of intervening. It explores the internal moral questions through a terrific central performance from Susanne Wolff which carries the film even if the screenplay falters at times.
Susanne Wolff portrays Rike, a German emergency room doctor who’s all business, who sets forth on a solo sailing journey from Gibraltor to Ascension Island. Ascension Island features an artificially created jungle by Charles Darwin and the symbolic journey shows that Rike is all logic and science. She’s self sufficient too, demonstrated by her being able to undertake the journey and all the preparations and state of the art equipment she brings aboard. The movie leaves no stone unturned in showing her competence, in preparation and dealing with a storm. Coupled with strong visual storytelling from director Wolfgang Fischer, there’s no question about her capability and confidence to deal with a crisis.
At least, Rike and the audience are led to think that. Upon surviving with a storm, Rike with her little sailing yacht, encounters an overloaded fishing trawler dead in the water overloaded with refugees and apparently in great distress. Too many for her to take aboard. Rike radios for help to the Coast Guard, but her requests for a response are met with bureaucratic double talk as she, and we, suspect that no help is coming. If she approaches, her boat will either be swamped or refugees will leap, try to reach her boat, and drown. What’s she to do except watch others die? The ever creaking boat has no answers.
STYX has no easy answers as a whole. That may be true of real life, but it also kind of stymies the forward momentum of the film. The situation is frustrating for Rike and it’s frustrating for the audience. I suspect that the whole point is to illustrate the idea that people want to do something to help, but don’t know what to do. Rushing to aid may just encourage more to leap to their death. And doing nothing is intolerable to the conscience.
But, once STYX makes that point, it really has nowhere left to go. It manages to get one refugee over to Rike’s boat, a 14 year old boy named Kingsley played by Gedion Oduor Weseka, who manages to humanize the refugees further by providing names. He ratchets up the emotional stakes some, but the situation doesn’t change. All we’re really left with is the toll being exacted on Rike’s psyche from the situation she’s observing. This is obviously the European perspective, but this distant status quo, which the film is very careful never to break from, doesn’t necessarily provide great cinema.
At 94 minutes, STYX doesn’t exactly overstay its welcome, but it treads water without much forward progress for a good chunk of its running time and you wonder if it perhaps would be a better short film than a feature. It features excellent visual storytelling, Wolfgang Fischer handles the problems of shooting almost entirely on water with great skill, and a terrific central performance, but at best it can only demonstrate the unsatisfying nature of the current situation. There’s really not a third act, either in the film or real life. While the larger moral point is made, and made well, at a certain point STYX feels more like a well intended lecture than a movie. There’s a good movie here, but you sense that there’s a better movie in this material.