Styx: How many can you save?

A Drama/Thriller
Written by Wolfgang Fischer and Ika Künzel
Directed by Wolfgang Fischer

You can find a lot of movies about a vacation gone wrong, where the protagonist (or protagonists) must fight for their lives and the lives of those they love. But Wolfgang Fischer does something much more interesting in Styx. Aside from one brief moment, the protagonist is never in serious danger. Her vacation becomes not a fight to survive but a fight to save others. And the authorities don’t seem to care much about saving these particular people.

Styx pulls no emotional punches. It puts you on the edge of your seat, but not in the Hitchcockian, fun way you expect from Hollywood. It makes you wonder what you would do in such a situation.

The film takes its time in the setup, beginning with beautiful shots of orangutans playing through deserted buildings in Gibraltar. Then a horrible car crash introduces us to an ambulance crew. We soon realize that we’re no longer in Gibraltar; everyone is talking in German.

As near as I can tell, the filmmakers put in the car crash and the ambulance simply to introduce us to the protagonist, an emergency room doctor named Rieke (Susanne Wolf). But her being a doctor doesn’t seem all that important now. She’s sailing by herself into the Atlantic on what seems to be a very long voyage.

The real story starts about a third of the way into the film. Rieke wakes up one morning out at sea to find an old, dilapidated boat overcrowded with African refugees a few hundred yards from her. She does what she’s supposed to do: She radios the Coast Guard, who warn her not to try helping the refugees, and promise that they will take care of everything. But the Coast Guard doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Rieke soon realizes that the authorities have more important things to do than save black people.

The lack of concern for the refugees is astounding. Rieke radios a freighter in the neighborhood and is told that company policy forbids such rescues. We’re not sure if that inhumane rule would apply if the people in danger were white.

Our protagonist is in a dilemma. She’s an emergency doctor, and she’s facing people in a horrible emergency who will die without help. People are jumping into the ocean as the old boat is bringing in water. But if she brings her vessel close enough to help, they will swamp it and she’ll drown with them.

She manages to save one boy (Gedion Oduor Wekesa) who successfully swims to her boat. But once there, he’s intent on rescuing his comrades. But all he can really do is watch, from a distance, as his family and friends die.

This is not a film about a woman becoming a heroine. Rieke saves people’s lives all the time. But this time, all she can do is talk on the radio to people who don’t care, as others die a few hundred meters away.

The title Styx comes from the river in Greek mythology that separates the living and the dead. Although this is a German film, almost all the dialog is in English. That’s the only language that everyone knows.

Styx opens Friday at the Roxie. I hope it gets a larger release. It deserves it.