Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews

VIFF Dispatch No. 5: Sleeping Sickness

Setting out to say something about Sleeping Sickness, a film by Ulrich Köhler shown in the recent Vancouver International Film Festival, I looked up the blurb I wrote nearly a decade ago for the director’s maiden feature Bungalow:

An army truck convoy pulls into a rest stop, disgorging the troops for a brief coffee break. One soldier (Lennie Burmeister) unobtrusively fails to remount, and hitches a ride to a little bungalow outside a rural village. The place is deserted and closed up, and at first it seems that the young man is breaking into the home of strangers. And perhaps he is, though in fact the home is his own. Soon his older brother turns up with Danish would-be movie starlet (Trine Dyrholm) in tow. Tensions arc through the lazy summer air like furtive breezes, and over the town nearby an explosion leaves its mark in the sky. Is there terrorist activity afoot? Is the young soldier himself planning something apocalyptic? The army phones up periodically, and patrols come by to look for him. The young man, who speaks vaguely of making a trip to Africa, is reluctantly spirited away by his alienated brother, yet somehow fails to take the train awaiting him. And so it goes, as the actress—who mostly speaks to the young man in English (though not to her lover)—becomes alternately more exasperated and intrigued by his growing fascination with her. A fellow SIFF programmer characterized the film, aptly and admiringly, as “a slow-motion train wreck.” Director Ulrich Köhler and cameraman Patrick Orth map the titular bungalow and the surrounding trees and hillsides with a chilling precision that never ruffles the laidback summer calm, and the film builds to a masterly, metaphysically charged long-take climax worthy of Antonioni.

Turns out I was already saying something about Sleeping Sickness. Like Bungalow, the new Köhler picture (his third) drifts in an eerie suspension, at once beautifully attentive to mood, place, and what we might call the climate of people’s souls, yet holding the press of story and theme at arm’s-length. The setting is the Africa the young man in Bungalow didn’t get to, though the director himself spent much of his childhood there. Heady and hefty issues crowd round demanding to be noticed and addressed—tensions between Europeans and the native population, and among the Europeans themselves; the legitimacy vs. the presumptuousness and built-in condescension of foreign-aid programs; the breakdown of a family living with one foot in Western culture and the other in the Third World—yet Köhler refuses to take a neat, complacent, problem-picture approach to any of them. That would just get in the way of the movie’s suffusing sense of being-there.

There, geographically speaking, is Cameroon, where German doctor Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma) has worked for two decades. The sleeping sickness of the title has been the nominal focus of his mission, though we hear little of it during the movie. Partly that’s because Velten has been too successful: the number of cases has dropped so dramatically that the medical bureaucrats back in Europe have begun to consider defunding his operation. But also, sleeping sickness is the metaphorical condition Velten himself has contracted, and although the early reels of the film show him preparing to pack up and return to Europe with his wife (Maria Elise Miller) and teenage daughter (Jenny Schily), we eventually learn that he never left.

I say eventually because the film blacks out half an hour or so in, suddenly the setting is Europe three years later, and our point of view shifts to another doctor, Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly). He is in some ways Velten’s opposite number, a black Frenchman born to Congolese parents who has never been to Africa. That will be remedied shortly, as Nzila is delegated to go make a definitive assessment of Velten’s operation. His early scenes in the backcountry are pitched somewhere between comedy-of-distraction and utter perplexity, with Velten nowhere to be seen and the staff and locals content to leave Nzila, not unkindly, to his own resources as he sweats through one humid night after another with only a flashlight for consolation in the unrelieved darkness.

Velten does reappear after a time—the first moment he’s really needed—and he’s at one and the same time recognizably the same fellow we were watching half an hour ago and a man utterly transformed. (Pierre Bokma’s performance is uncanny.) The remainder of the film will constitute a running conversation, as it were, between the fully assimilated white man and the European black who’s effectively whiter than Velten. This is a genuinely mysterious movie, and I suspect it’s going to leave some viewers frustrated and impatient. But I’m taken with Köhler’s line of country. Gone native, perhaps.

Copyright © 2011 by Richard T. Jameson