In a critical commentary on Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis, Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx depicts life and death at sea, from the perspective of a woman solo-sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. Selected for Berlin International Film Festival and London Film Festival in 2018, Styx taps into the zeitgeist with a small and personal take on a global issue.
Susanne Wolf is Rike, a doctor who embarks on a solo mission to sail to Ascension Island - an island famed for its contradictory climate, remoteness and lush scenery. Early in Styx, Rike explains that Ascension Island is an attractive destination for her due to the history of botany and vegetation that Charles Darwin bought there. Rike is intelligent and curious - but also fundamentally alone. The vast majority of the film sees Rike independently sailing - in both gentle and rough weather - content in isolation in the vast ocean.
After a particularly stormy night, Rike wakes to find a refugee ship drifting close by. The ship is damaged and dangerously overcrowded. She radios the coastguard for help, but there seems a reluctance on their side. Rike’s small sailboat isn’t large enough to assist in the rescue of large numbers of people, but the small refugee boat is sinking further by the minute. In that moment, Fischer seems to ask the audience - what would you do?
The title Styx feels more than appropriate - as the situation becomes worse, Rike and the refugees find themselves trapped in a hellish landscape. Isolated by both water and the lack of assistance from any countries coastguard - they are floating along the watery passage between this world and the next. In an almost documentary style, Fischer doesn’t give anything away - Rike’s decision’s feel as spontaneous to her as they do to the viewer. In this way, Styx is almost excruciating to watch as there’s little to no indication of what will happen next and the tension is rife throughout.
The almost one-woman performance by Wolff is impressive. With limited dialogue, Wolff conveys a great deal of emotion using facial expressions only and is an easy lighting rod for viewers to latch on to. Though engaging, the first hour of the film moves very slowly. There’s a curiosity about what is about to happen, but the first hour or so of the film feels as if it is just waiting for the narrative to begin and nothing more. Once Rike runs into the refugee boat, the stakes are raised and the pace picks up considerably and the resulting tension is what makes Styx work.
It is certainly a well intended film and works best when encouraging its audience to empathise with both Rike and the refugees (predominantly Kingsley). However, Styx is another film depicting the refugee crisis but from the perspective of a white European. Kingsley is the only named refugee, all of the others make appearances only as figures in the distance or as bodies in the water. Whilst Styx succeeds in opening up a dialogue about how certain humans are treated in times of crisis, it also ensures that white people are (yet again) the front and centre of the narrative.
Styx forces its audience to think about a situation that many of us would be less than likely to find ourselves in, but the allegory is reaches beyond physically saving those in danger. It asks us to question the policies of those in charge and to answer that deeply uncomfortable question - why are some human lives more important than others?