62nd BFI London Film Festival: Styx Review
Ascension Island is an isolated volcanic atoll, located 7°56′ south of the Equator in the Atlantic Ocean. Charles Darwin visited this lonely archipelago in 1836 aboard HMS Beagle as a part of his second survey expedition of the world, during which he gathered data that aided him in the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. It was also Darwin’s idea to turn this bare and uninviting island into a tropical jungle, which marks one of the first “terra-forming” experiments. This unusual, artificial paradise is also the destination point of our main heroine Rike, an experienced paramedic doctor and a skillful amateur sailor from Germany, who embarks on a solo voyage across 5,000 km of the open Atlantic Ocean, on a tiny sailboat called Asa Grey.
The first third of the magnificent film that is Styx marks cinema at its purest. Few words are used, the camera work is exceptional (shot by Benedict Neuenfels, entirely on open water), the physical performance is very powerful and admirable (the superb Susanne Wolff is an amateur sailor herself) and the directing by Wolfgang Fischer is thoroughly effective and no-nonsense. The beginning of Rike’s journey is very silent and meditative; there is only her and the vastness of the ocean. It is utterly captivating to watch her take command over her boat and enjoy the solitude, an occasional dip in the dark blue waters and the glorious sunsets… but her adventurous and mostly care-free voyage unexpectedly turns into a rescue mission.
One crisp morning, after a big storm, Rike spots an old fishing boat, overloaded with people. She quickly realises that the boat, which is full of immigrants from Africa, is sinking and she immediately calls for help. But the coast guard seems hesitant to assist, instructing her to stay away. Rike finds herself in a difficult situation and she is not sure what to do. She feels a strong personal responsibility to help the people in distress – after all, she is a doctor – but the indifference and the lack of empathy of her cultural milieu, the ruthlessness of corporate capitalist system, and her incapability to actually do something leave a bitter taste.
Fischer keeps the story very linear, there are no subplots and diversions and his message comes across very clear and potent. The white, shiny and carefully designed curves of Asa Grey present a good metaphor for the superiority of the western culture – the boat is fully loaded with food, water and medicine supplies and equipped with latest technology. We can also see that there is a well-functioning system of inform and rescue in place, with all the codes and protocols… but apparently not meant for those Others. No, not for them, not for the Others. Just for us. On the other side of us, you have a sinking ship, with all these people who have nothing on board, no water, no contact and nobody who would rescue them.
The very first thing we see in Styx (2018) are the Barbary Macaques, the well known semi-wild monkeys that dominate the streets of Gibraltar. There are no humans in sight, the city seems to be unusually empty. The wildlife took over the urban spaces. Together with the eerie score, these images evoke a strange feeling that there is something wrong. We all selfishly think we are sailing to paradise, but we keep forgetting the price we are paying for our luxurious existence; our compass of humanity is alarmingly off. Survival of the fittest, said Darwin – well, actually it was Herbert Spencer – but survival of the richest would be way more accurate. In his allegorical sea tale, Fischer takes us on a gripping odyssey, the modern version of Scylla and Charybdis, making us question our “civilization” and the broken oaths of democracy.
Written by Ana Šturm
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © AMOUR FOU Filmproduktion GmbH