The global refugee crisis becomes personal for a solo sailor off the coast of West Africa in “Styx,” a detailed, perfectly realistic minimalist parable from Germany.
German character actress Suzanne Wolff (“Three Musketeers,” “Return to Montauk”) makes the most of a rare leading lady turn as almost the only character in this, one of the most accurate sailing solo dramas and one that wrestles with an existential crisis of our time.
Rike is an emergency services doctor in Germany, a physician on the scene with EMTs at car accidents and the like — stressful, life-and-death-decision work. It’s no wonder that her way to unwind is getting in a boat with no one else around.
But her get-away sail from Gibraltar to remote Ascension Island in the middle of the Southern Atlantic, days of silently working the boat, taking precautions, riding out storms and checking the charts, are upended when she comes across a disabled trawler overloaded with African refugees far out to sea north of the Cape Verde Islands.
She can hear screams and wailing across the water, as they’ve seen her. She can raise a coast guard with her “Pan Pan” (SOS) calls, and communicate with a South African-accented coast guard.
She understands, perfectly, the orders that she “not intervene,” that her mere presence will add to “the chaos” of this situation. She hears (in English) the “Back away, back away.”
But she’s a doctor. And the voice on the other end of the radio’s reassurances that “help is on the way” give her doubts.
Director and co-writer Wolfgang Fisher doesn’t have a lot of credits (“What You Don’t See” is his other feature), but he hews as close to the reality of this story as possible. Rike’s meticulous planning — she lays out everything she is packing on her 12 meter (39 foot) yacht, gears up by-the-book — and experienced sail-handling make her seem at home in this world, and stereotypically German.
There’s one eyebrow raising moment, becalmed, skinny-dipping over the side — i happens, but its insanely risky. But even that has a grinning “Yeah, she’s German all right” feel.
She doesn’t talk to herself, doesn’t make an effort to stay in touch with anybody by radio, which suits her personality and intended destination. Ascension is where Darwin set up his own experimental unspoiled test forest. Rike’s boat is named “Asa Gray,” America’s most famous 19th century botanist. When Rike isn’t saving lives, she unwinds immersed in flora.
The encounter-at-sea has hints of melodrama to it, but presents as a moral dilemma. Will the First World respond to a climate-population-and conflict (often religious) induced humanitarian crisis in the Third World?
It’s a solid, troubling story, acted with compassion mixed with pragmatism, where every decision made by everyone we can see is defensible and rational, no matter how irrational it can seem from the comfort of the viewer’s distant remove.
Here, on a small sailboat in the middle of the ocean, is the world wrestling with this global crisis, from South Asia and Australia to Mediterranean and Atlantic Coast Europe to the Americas, and not finding any easy answer.
MPAA Rating: unrated, some nudity
Cast: Susanne Wolff, Gedion Oduor Wekesa
Credits: Directed by Wolfgang Fisher, script by Ika Künzel and Wolfgang Fischer. A Film Movement Plus streaming release.
Running time: 1:34