The title of Austrian director Wolfgang Fischer’s drama is pretty on the nose but thankfully there is little else about his seabound film that matches it. Styx takes its name from the River Styx, the river that connects the land of the living to the dead in Greek mythology. The river in question here relates more to a personal journey made across the ocean and the choices the traveller has to make when no longer able to avoid them.
The first 20 minutes are almost entirely dialogue free, starting off in the city centre of Cologne before spending the rest of the time on a sailing boat. Which is not to say the remainder of the film is exactly verbally expressive, as it relies on the physicality of the lead character to portray her spiralling range of emotions when confronted with an almost impossible situation.
J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost works as a reference point of sorts, although there are heavy political and social themes attached to Fischer’s story. After a brief introduction to Rieke (Susanne Wolff) watching her perform her role as a paramedic doctor, we zip across to Gibraltar as she prepares to board a 12-metre yacht called Asa Gray. Her destination is the remote island of Ascension, inspired by Charles Darwin’s attempts to create a tropical paradise there. She will soon encounter others searching for a promised land of sorts, although most likely not through choice.
Rieke is clearly an experienced sailor and navigates the sea with relative ease. Benedict Neuenfels’ photography captures the intensity of riding the choppy waves especially when Rieke hits an expected storm and battles through the night to find her way through. When she emerges the next morning she comes across a fishing trawler filled with migrants close to the coast of Cape Verde. Rieke anchors some distance away but can hear and see through her binoculars that they are in severe trouble.
She does the right thing by alerting the coastguard who reassure her that help will be on its way. Hours pass by and the coastguard still haven't arrived and in despair she slowly ventures closer to the trawler only to watch people jump overboard in panic. One of those is a teenage boy (Gedion Oduor Weseka) who has practically passed out by the time Rieke fishes him out of the water. She tries to nurse him back to health, but with help still nowhere in sight she is left with an impossible choice as her own boat is unable to take so many people on board.
Placing yourself in Rieke’s shoes doesn’t offer up any immediate solutions. The growing indifference we show in the West towards the migration crisis isn't present here because we too have no exit route from her boat. We have to painfully sit and watch people suffering with no choice to close a website window or change the channel. Fischer rightfully doesn’t persecute his character for her indecision and uncertainty, neither does he praise her for doing all she can to save the young boy.
Fischer does perhaps remain on Rieke’s boat a little too long and the ending feels as short and compact as the beginning, losing some of the emotional impact that could've made for a harder-hitting conclusion. Praise must go to Wolff who has to carry the entire film and she does a fantastic job of showing us her inner struggle with next to no words at her disposal. It's a sobering performance that is in keeping with the mood of a film that offers no place to hide for anyone watching it.
If you want to catch Styx at LFF there are still tickets available for both showings and you can buy them on the BFI website.
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