Styx (2018) by Wolfgang Fischer
Review by Andrew Swafford
Styx is the kind of movie I imagine you can’t leave an international art film festival without seeing at least one of: an austere European drama with unknown actors about serious and pressing contemporary issues. In this case, the issue at hand is the global refugee crisis, here explored in the form of a seaborne morality play.
The film follows a character named Rieke who works selflessly as an ambulance doctor, handling the heaviness of death on a daily basis. An opening scene of her silently looking into the eyes of a dying motorist in the middle of the night is all the buy-in we need to justify where the film goes next: on vacation. Rieke boards her cruising yacht and sets out on a rejuvenating voyage across the ocean towards Ascension Island, an artificial biome created by none other than Charles Darwin. Rieke never arrives on Ascension Island, but Styx revels in the pains and pleasures of her journey: from the methodical struggles of hoisting the sail and surviving storms to the weightless solitude of mid-day swimming and napping. The film needs almost no dialogue up to a certain point, and is able to tell its story visually through body language and bold framing, often setting the human body in opposition to the chaotic power of the sea, which often takes up the bottom two quadrants of the screen--although cordial radio conversations with the Coast Guard and a passing luxury liner serve as important foreshadowing of things to come.
The film’s political concerns take center stage when Rieke comes across a slowly sinking ship full of refugees from an unspecified country in Africa. She’s forewarned by the Coast Guard not to approach, as her yacht doesn’t have the necessary space--and her presence might invite refugees to jump ship. She hesitates and proves the coast guard right: at least a half-dozen migrants start swimming to her, only one boy surviving the trip. The film lingers on the slow, laborious process necessary to save a single human life, perhaps to imply the sheer impossibility of a single person saving so many. A broader system is necessary for such a task: but what if the Coast Guard does nothing? A sense of guilt and gnawing worry keeps Rieke at a distance from the sinking ship, and she increasingly comes in conflict with the boy she saved, who insists she attempt to rescue his family members. As its grimly mythic title suggests, the film is a bleak one, laser-focused on a single moral dilemma: when our systems of justice aren’t to be trusted, what duty does a single person have to make a difference--especially when every decision perpetuates more and more trouble? To quote what is still, to me, the best movie of the year: somebody’s got to do something!
Styx may ultimately fall prey to its own pessimistic conceit: its aware of the problem, but does it ultimately accomplish anything? The film is so concerned with the ethics of global politics that it obviously wants to make a difference, but how much of a difference does it make to show an audience full of privileged academic-types that refugees around the world are suffering and we ultimately can’t do much as individuals to help them? I admire the film’s clarity in constructing a potent moral allegory--and the muscular, tactile way in which it’s presented visually--but I’m still left scratching my head as to what exactly counts as success for a morality play like this: does it need to transcend its form somehow? Does it need to offer a solution? Or does it simply need to pose the right question? Styx certainly does that.