A blunt, breathless, and astoundingly unsentimental morality play that’s told with the intensity of a ticking-clock thriller, Wolfgang Fischer’s “Styx” is every bit as ominous as its title suggests, and far less fanciful. A German emergency doctor named Rieke (Susanne Wolff) takes a well-deserved vacation from her long nights of saving lives, and flies to the sunny rocks of Gibraltar in order to fulfill one of her forever dreams. Completely by herself on an 11-meter yacht without any connection to the outside world except for the boat’s radio, she’s sailing to Ascension Island, a volcanic speck located halfway between West Africa and Brazil. Rieke longs to see the jungle that Charles Darwin once designed for the island: “Wild, untouched nature that was actually planned.” And she longs to do it alone. For a man, that might seem like a bit of bravado; for a woman, it drifts closer to an act of defiance. More than anything — and regardless of gender — such proud self-sufficiency is a privilege in a world where help is seldom offered to those who need it most.
Named after the mythological river that flows between the living and the dead, and ascetic enough to make “All Is Lost” feel like “Titanic,” this tight sailor’s knot of a movie offers a cold look at the broken math of the ongoing refugee crisis.
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Rieke is a sailor capable of weathering any storm that threatens to slow her down (note the vague hint of condescension in the concerned male voice that squawks through Rieke’s radio and warns her to batten down the hatches). Others aren’t quite as seaworthy. The morning after a particularly intense squall, our heroine spots a sinking boat on the horizon. The distress is palpable, even at a distance. The vessel is carrying dozens upon dozens of refugees, and that’s just counting the ones Rieke can spot flailing their arms for help on the deck.
Fischer roots us to Rieke’s perspective; we see what she sees, and hear what she hear. The refugees’ look like shadows, and their cries sound like gentle whispers of the wind. The creaking symphony of Rieke’s ship dominates the soundtrack, a constant reminder that it can only take on so much weight. Rieke has saved enough lives to spot death 150 meters away; she wants to help, but knows that getting any closer would cause a panic. People would drown — her boat might capsize. She’ll call the coast guard, and wait for them to handle it. But when a single young boy (just barely) survives the swim between the two vessels, Rieke’s logic begins to feel a lot like murder.
“Styx” definitely sounds like the stuff of a white savior movie, and in lesser hands it could have been, but Rieke is no white savior — if anything, she becomes an emblem of all the humanity that we’ve sacrificed. Wolff’s face is hard and static; you can feel the actress getting cornered in her own mind. Her character doesn’t have an arc so much as a slow disintegration over the span of a film that mutes its drama into white noise. She doesn’t grow or change or learn that “refugees are people, too,” she just watches in horror and begins to lose hope. She shakes her head at the sinister chorus of voices that come through her radio and defer their responsibility to help. Someone on a nearby freighter says that his company “has a strict policy [of non-intervention] in such cases. I can’t risk my job.” “You are obliged to,” Rieke responds. Back in Germany, her government spares enormous resources to rescue just one person. Here, no one will risk the cost of saving 100.
While the introduction of a second character threatens to muddy the meditative focus of Fischer and Ika Künzel’s detail-driven script, the film’s most riveting stretches come after Rieke’s frail passenger wakes up and realizes what’s happening. Kingsley (Nairobi-born schoolboy Gedion Odour Wekesa) only speaks a few words of English, but that’s more than enough to convey his despair. To him, the people on the sinking boat are his friends and family, and not just another clutch of anonymous refugees. Without so much as a hint of histrionics, “Styx” lays bare the extent to which Kingsley’s empathy humiliates that of the helpless woman who saved him. At one point, Rieke even has to stop the boy from trying to swim back. If there’s something a bit schematic about how these characters are thrown together, that feeling is largely defused by how little progress the two of them are able to make.
For a moral exercise so clean that it could be used in a philosophy textbook, the film is unerringly realistic (shooting on the open sea helps sell the illusion). Fischer makes sure of that by flattening out the action so that no part of this story is prioritized above another. Long stretches of Rieke sitting alone in the cabin of her boat are given the same weight as the harrowing moment when she falls into the ocean without a rope. It’s a risky gambit, but one that mostly works. “Styx” is a short movie, but some viewers might get exasperated by the anti-drama on both sides of the central conflict; perverse as it may sound, the film isn’t punishing or stretched out enough to make everything feel equal, and the lack of adrenaline can sometimes feel like an affectation unto itself.
At least it’s a beautiful affectation. Many of the most indelible shots are captured from a God’s-eye-view, and Fischer — exploiting the intrinsic sense of detachment that comes from drone photography — infuses almost every frame with divine indifference. There’s a striking contrast between the tactile intimacy of the footage aboard Rieke’s boat, and the blankness of the ultra-wide imagery that cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels captures from high above the ocean, as “Styx” constantly reinforces how myopic our compassion can be.
The ocean is wide enough to be an adventure for one person and a graveyard for another, but they’re both swimming through the same body of water. Rieke might literally chart her own course to paradise, but it runs perpendicular to a desperate migration. It’s a collision between two very different ideas of paradise, both of which are inevitably lost.
“Styx” is now playing in theaters via Film Movement.