Wolfgang Fischer
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Ika Künzel, Wolfgang Fischer
Susanne Wolff, Gedion Oduor Wekesa, Kelvin Mutuku Ndinda.
Screening Date:
  • 22 Oct 2019
  • Categories:

    An emergency doctor (Susanne Wolff) is fulfilling a life-long dream of sailing solo from Gibraltar to Ascension Island when she comes across a boat overloaded with refugees. Immersive cinematography draws us into the dilemmas of Western privilege, moral responsibility amidst themes of racism and empathy.

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    F-Rated Bronze

    Film Notes

    A searing new movie asks: What would you do if you came across refugees in a sinking ship?

    There isn’t much talking in the movie “Styx,” which is set almost entirely on a sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. For the first half of this spellbinding — and unexpectedly gut-wrenching — little film, there’s barely any dialogue at all, apart from the occasional radio exchange between the boat’s hyper-capable captain (Susanne Wolff) and a disembodied voice, warning her, from an unseen vessel, of an approaching storm. Like 2013’s “All Is Lost,” there’s an inherent fascination in witnessing an individual cope with the elements, against the vastness of the high seas.

    But all that changes when the woman, Rike, comes out on the other side of the storm to discover a disabled and slowly sinking ship filled with more than 100 African refugees, some of whom have begun jumping overboard — only to drown — in their desperation at the prospect of rescue. When Rike contacts the coast guard with a mayday call, she is warned to back away; her presence gives false hope, she is told, and her tiny boat cannot accommodate that many people. But one straggler clinging to a life preserver, a 14-year-old boy named Kingsley (Gedion Oduor Wekesa), manages to make it to the side of Rike’s boat, where he is taken in, shivering, dehydrated and badly injured.

    From that moment on, “Styx” becomes a kind of moral allegory, crossed with an almost unbearably tense nautical thriller. Rike wants to help the others (including Kingsley’s sister, back on the ship), but she also recognizes the limitations of one person’s ability to do so. While she reluctantly waits for help, she’s reduced to an impotent witness.

    This may be how many people watching feel about Rike’s situation, albeit less acutely and with none of the immediacy. As Austrian director Wolfgang Fischer and his co-writer Ika Künzel suggest, those of us who watch passively — or worse, choose to look away — while a seemingly unending flood of refugees struggle to reach our shores may also be the ones in need of saving.

    “Styx” is, paradoxically, a beautiful, if eccentric film. Opening in Gibraltar, where Rike practices emergency medicine, the film focuses, at times, away from the dramatic to the mundane: a Barbary macaque, a traffic accident and, later, on Rike’s boat, on a piece of crumpled food wrapper slowly expanding, like a flower. Everything feels at once ordinary and otherworldly, evoking a sense of the surreal in the everyday.

    Wolff is never less than mesmerizing in this role, which demands a performance that is, at times, more physical than emotive. She’s like a dancer: straining and exerting in a ballet of movements that convey meaning not by words, but actions. And when her character is, by the end of the film, reduced to something like catatonia, her drained silence speaks volumes, echoing the way the audience, at that point, probably also feels.

    Michael O'Sullivan, The Washington Post, March 13th 2018.

    Susanne Wolff thrills in Wolfgang Fischer's visceral, oceanic allegory about personal responsibility in the face of the refugee crisis.

    There is significant cinematic pleasure in observing someone perform an action at which they’re practiced. Watching a pianist play or a driver change gear or a master thief pick a lock can exert its own fascination, and the camera can identify expertise, in muscle memory and dexterity that cannot be faked. In the first, nearly wordless third of Wolfgang Fischer’s thrillingly lean “Styx,” in filmmaking as crisp and slicing as a sea breeze, Suzanne Wolff’s expert amateur sailor Rike embarks on a solo voyage across 5,000 km of open Atlantic, in a tiny, bright white sailboat called Asa Gray. And simply watching this one-woman-show of intense physical prowess is so absorbing that it’s a double shock when she happens upon an overloaded refugee boat and the film’s sails are suddenly fat with intractable dilemma. This is “All Is Lost” with a spinning moral compass and a topical dimension that proves even more gripping than its brilliantly achieved visceral action.

    As an efficient prologue has already established, back at home Rike is a doctor, and a first responder at that: perhaps the exact person you would want to have on the scene of an impending disaster. But though she has weathered an angry storm en route — demonstrating not only her decisiveness and self-reliance, but that peculiarly German knack for having exactly the right kit for every conceivable eventuality — this is one situation to which even her skills and preparations are not equal. The sinking fishing trawler she can see a few hundred meters away bristles with too many people for her to accommodate on her small craft, and the coastguard whom she immediately contacts promises that proper help is on the way, warning her to keep her distance in the meantime.

    That directive seems heartless, but its practicality is demonstrated when Rike steers a little closer to the refugee boat, in an effort to get some of her spare water to its dehydrated passengers, and in desperation a number of them throw themselves into the sea to reach her. Most drown, but one boy, Kingsley (a superb Gedion Oduor Wekes) makes it almost all the way. Rike throws him a lifebuoy and hefts his exhausted, unconscious, dead-weight body aboard before retreating to a farther distance. She tends to Kingsley and dresses a nasty wound on his back, but when he finally wakes it only makes the agony of enforced inaction worse, as he explains in broken English that his sister is back on the sinking vessel and begs Rike to go back for her.

    Without laboring the allegory, Fischer and co-writer Ika Künzel’s screenplay is airy enough that we can map the broader forces of Western indifference and corporate ruthlessness amid this ongoing humanitarian catastrophe onto these two players and the few voices that crackle over the radio. But the immediacy of DP Benedict Neuenfels’ precise photography — which somehow finds maneuverability in confined spaces yet gives the vastness of the ocean a sense of crushing claustrophobia — never gives us any distance from the personal moral quandary. Rike, acutely aware of her own higher “value” as a wealthy white Westerner is suspicious of the coastguard’s priorities, and so resolves to stake out the area until the promised rescue arrives. But the cries carried on the wind from the stricken trawler are getting weaker and fewer, and the horizon remains cruelly empty. Is it Hippocrates or hypocrisy or simple self-preservation that traps her in this impossible ethical mire?

    Odysseus navigated his way between Scylla and Charybdis by deciding it was better to lose six men to a monster than his whole crew to a whirlpool. But one can never know retroactively if such sacrificial decisions were the right ones, and they will be cold comfort to the people who die and the people who mourn. In only his second feature, Fischer, abetted by a rivetingly capable performance from Wolff, evokes these classical allusions in a scintillatingly modern, provocative way, pulling his clever narrative taut through the cleats, and ratcheting the human stakes high as the implacable blue sky.

    JESSICA KIANG, Variety, FEBRUARY 24, 2018.

    What you thought about Styx

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    42 (63%) 20 (30%) 4 (6%) 1 (1%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 67
    Film Score (0-5): 4.54

    Collated Response Comments

    The screening of Styx was attended by 127 members and guests who provided 67 responses. A 53% response rate. The level of positive responses has placed Styx as the number 1 film of the season so far, moving The Dish into second place.

    Here is a view by one member, “It should be remembered that Styx is not just the river of the dead but the name of the ferryman, which may be a more pertinent point here. The location and premise here are brilliantly simple: Rike, the square jawed, athletic Wolff a superb casting choice, is set up as the intelligent, responsible, capable woman on a tough lone quest of her own devising. She appears all conquering until presented with a horrible moral dilemma and by the end is a broken woman. The setting allows clear contrasts to be made; Rike in her sparkling yacht with all that modern technology can offer compared to the horde of diseased migrants on their decrepit sinking vessel, the crisp colours of the opening replaced by a queasy washed out palette by the finale. Is it all in the striking opening sequences? The impressive creatures of the wild muscularly easing their way around the city as if they own it, the innocent's life derailed by two irresponsible playboys. Also the vision of Ascension Island - a desert transformed by benign nurture”. Another wrote “Liked the overarching tension in it. Almost provocative, the growing sense of dread draws the viewer in with Rieke at the centre of the action; clever mixture of racism from the apparent 'rescuers' and the symbolism of someone alone in a 12-metre yacht and people stranded in the middle of an ocean. Precise photography highlights what felt like claustrophobia at times; Woolf's performance was gripping. A sinister end with her under armed guard simply highlights the absence of effective help for helpless people. Earlier as she reads her books about Ascension, swims and sunbathes which is the calm before the storm then the encounter with the trawler. The reality that faces so many who flee conflicts or who are just seeking a better life is carefully developed”.

    Many of you also responded in such a positive way as can be seen in the following: “You can tell when a film is good when there is not a murmur or movement in the theatre, even at the end! So different with minimal dialogue but powerful images and action and that dilemma. What would you do? Susanne Wolff was excellent as was the boy. That will stay with me for some time. Thanks”. “Wow! A hard film to watch. A doctor leaving trauma for the freedom & challenge of the open sea...and really facing trauma!  A humane response to an inhuman situation laid bare”.

    “A very unusual, moving telling of a tragedy happening all too often. Words and silence were just right”. “Powerful drama for our time”. “Grim viewing”. “Held my interest – interesting that there was so little dialogue”. “Excellent photography – tense and gripping storyline”. “Super sailing shots. Brought back so many memories of going across the Atlantic. Very thought provoking re the dilemma – needed making”. “Riveting to watch and one was aware of every single sound – the sea, the rigging all adding to the tension. Her dilemma was intense and the woefully belated response chilling. An excellently made film”. 

    “Director realises the benefits of silence and the minimum of dialogue in order for the audience to concentrate on the visuals. In Gibraltar, where the street accident was filmed (with everyone driving on the left) is it normal for RTAs to be attended by Doctors labelled as "NOTAERTZIN" i.e. "EMERGENCY FEMALE DOCTOR”??”

     “As a sailor, I didn’t find it convincing and didn’t see the dilemma between rich and poor – just saving life. By the way there is no jungle on Ascension Island it is a barren volcanic island”.

    “Thought provoking, excellent story. And current. Shows the difficulty in these issues with no easy answer”. “Why such little detail?” “Distressing to watch. Excellent film. The tip of the iceberg”. “Brilliant!” “So moving. Now that’s what you call a strong woman!” “An extremely interesting and relevant film – good choice!”

    “So much conveyed by so few words. Amazing performance by Kingsley”. “Exceedingly powerful, sensitive and emotive. Brilliant and sensitive filming”. “Truly realistic story”. “Just about the most powerful film I’ve seen at the club”. “Striking but not gripping. It’s easy to manufacture a moral dilemma, not so easy to resolve it – and indeed it wasn’t resolved”. “First half too slow, pretty disturbing”. “Rather sudden ending”. “A good film. Convincing sailing and acting. A little slow in parts. Harrowing”. “Really gripping cinema”.

    “Better for less dialogue. The situation spoke for itself. Powerful performance by Suzanne Wolff”. “Wonderful photography”. “I felt the main characters dilemma was harrowing and very well acted”. “Profound and distressing”. “This is what reminds me not to stay in and watch Television which never demands the comparable level of concentration”. “Fantastic tension”. “What a moral dilemma. Excellent acting filming and directing”. “Gripping”. “No time!” “Brilliantly shot – really felt as if I was there. Could have done with more clarity at times”.

    “Terrific acting. Wonderful photography. Mesmerising. Appalling moral dilemma which reduces the main character to a wreck unable to function”. “Very boring. Not likable characters”. “Great filming and photography. Big human story”. “Very powerful. Emotional without being sentimental. Very good”. “Stymied in the Styx. How to know what to do? What should have been done? What would have happened anyway? Mostly good if a bit too into itself. (And the faceless bureaucracy is too faceless)”.

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