Where to begin with Sleeping Sickness? I can only divulge the first third of its plot, merely suggest genre, and much less express my feelings intelligibly for fear of giving away the film’s myriad surprises. Perhaps it’s an enigmatic thriller set around the world of medicine, specifically concerning Dr. Velten (the permanently sweaty Pierre Bokma) as he wrestles with administrators and an outbreak of the titular disease? Perhaps. But at around the 30-minute mark Köhler’s film cuts, without warning, to another time and place, introducing new characters and agendas. How far into the future are we? How will these stories connect, if at all? Suddenly the film becomes a ‘Heart Of Darkness‘-esque tale about foreigners in a radical land, exposing the West’s warped idea of African society. It’s a fascinating slow-burn (but actually incredibly entertaining) film, impossible to grasp with the logic of traditional storytelling. Let’s focus on that first third a little more…
Dr. Velten’s medical programme has been a success, extensively reducing the amount of illness in the region. Administrators are demanding an increase in financial aid, but Velten stands strong on his position. Shortly he will be rejoining his family, wife Vera (Jenny Schilly) and daughter Helen (Maria Elise Miller), in their native Germany, but something about that land depresses him. The jungle has a grasp around his throat, it would seem, although the consequence of this pull won’t be made clear until the bewildering ending (you won’t see a better final shot this year). Köhler slowly builds a portrait of this family, framed like the most ordinary of dramas. The dialogue and performances are naturalistic, the photography uncharacteristically beautiful, the sound low-key. This portion of the film engages, but doesn’t indicate greatness. Questions about legislation and corruption are raised, but it’s clear that Köhler is going to keep his picture small. Even when the scope of its story extends the film remains intimate, focusing on character.
I wish I could discuss the next third in more detail, but all you need know is that it concerns Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), a French doctor who is sent to build a report on Dr. Velten’s programme. When he arrives Ebbo is nowhere to be found. What follows is an examination of Africa unlike any I’ve seen before, and a visual portrait of the country which is as mythical as it is challenging. The landscape, lensed by DP Patrick Orth, suddenly attains a sparse mystique – anything, we consider, could happen here. This feeling becomes even more prevalent in the final third, which I shall keep completely under wraps. This is the most snakelike of films, deceptively slithering through the subconscious and shedding its skin every thirty minutes. Its themes change with the tides. To some degree it’s also about culture shock. The plot I’ve described so far is really just a surface, although I don’t make that statement detrimentally. It’s the most polished, absorbing surface a film of substance can possibly possess.
A cautionary tale blending the ideas of Conrad with the aesthetics of Denis (and a bit of Weerasethakul thrown in for good measure), Sleeping Sickness is the most interesting film I’ve seen this year, and I’m praying that distributors give me the chance to watch it time and time again. Just one piece of advice: don’t read ANY other reviews until you’ve seen it. There are some great ones out there, but all reveal too much of the plot. The ideal way to watch Sleeping Sickness is completely cold, unaware of its eventual trajectory. In all honesty, you probably shouldn’t have read this far…
Director: Ulrich Köhler
Writer: Ulrich Köhler
Stars: Pierre Bokma, Jean-Christophe Folly, Jenny Schilly, Hippolyte Giradot
Runtime: 91 minutes
Country: Germany, France, Netherlands