By Robert Koehler
Good, the first controversy at the Berlin film festival. Why “good”? Controversies keep you warmed up, which you need to do in Berlin, where the snow fell today for the first time since Thursday’s opening with the Coens’ wonderful and genuine Charles Portis adaptation True Grit.
But to the real stuff: Don’t believe the trades on the first excellent competition film, Ulrich Koehler’s Sleeping Sickness. (No, there’s no relation–not that I know of.) In the least problematic of the three English-language trade reviews, my Variety colleague Boyd Van Hoeij incorrectly observes that the film “mostly seems content to just observe the lived-in perfs and impressive location work” and later in the review reiterates this notion that “Koehler simply observes.” Screen International critic Dan Fainaru appears to have it in for Koehler anyway, since he classifies him in a clearly sarcastic mode as “a follower of the passivity school which seems to be popular among German arthouse directors,” wrongly terming the film as “politically correct to a fault” and slamming it as “dramatically limp throughout.” Fainaru further gets things wrong by complaining that “none of the characters exude any kind of distinct personality or show any real determination to reach their goals.” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ray Bennett issues a doozy of a review that convinces me that he didn’t see the film: The film “lacks a clear point of view,” (wrong) with “much of it filmed at night” (way wrong), that the African-French doctor Alex Nzila (played by the excellent Jean-Christophe Folly from Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums) is “urban, gay and very French” (a real mischaracterization of a much subtler character creation), that the film is bad because there’s “little suspense” and that the film deals with Euro aid to Africa and the role of NGOs–in fact, the very heart of the film and its subject–but that, without explaining it in his review, claims that it does so “without addressing either topic” (which is impossible, since it’s precisely the context upon which the entire film is built).
As a critic, I hesitate referring to fellow critics’ reviews as stupid, but the latter two of these reviews tempt me to issue the term. The reviews are particularly damaging since Koehler has made his first feature in five years, since his superb Windows on Monday, and since he now stands as one of the very finest German filmmakers and deserves nothing less than the most intelligent and incisive critical conversation. He hasn’t received what he deserves for Sleeping Sickness, and the time has come to defend this film without hesitation.
This points to an essential truth about the responsibility of the film critic: In this case, it’s not mandatory that one must term Sleeping Sickness a masterpiece (I’m not even ready to do that), but it is fundamental to the nature of the film’s seriousness and intentions that the critic must engage with it, and conduct a reasonable conversation with it. For Bennett to state that the film was largely filmed at night is to raise great suspicions that he even saw it…or was awake. To report such a false item in a review is akin to stating that much of La regle de jeu takes place during a rabbit hunt.
I personally consider this kind of response to such a sensitively and adventurously conceived film as Koehler’s to be less of an outrage (although I was genuinely angry when I cracked open the trades yesterday morning here) than it is a tragedy for critics. It can’t be overstated how much import and attention is paid to the trade reviews during a festival-market such as Berlin; perhaps even more so in Berlin than, say, Cannes, where the trade coverage is sometimes counterbalanced (either aesthetically or in terms of temperament) by the French critical press, which is in general several light years beyond the German film critical press. (For instance, there isn’t a single daily paper or critic in Germany whom everybody–German-speaking and non-German-speaking alike– tunes into during the festival. Such is not the case during Cannes.) And because the trades during the Berlinale carry greater weight, the critical responsibility is heightened.
I’m extremely aware of this since I’m in the position of filing Variety reviews during the hothouse atmospheres of Sundance, Toronto and Cannes, in which we must view our assigned film as early as possible and file as soon as possible, in order to have the Variety review earlier online–a reflection of today’s intensified web-based editorial competition. So I more than sympathize with my trade colleagues during the deadline-intensive setting of the Berlinale. (A Variety colleague confided to me last night that they were already four reviews behind in their filing, a typical situation if your schedule forces you to catch four assigned films on the same day. We’ve all been there.)
Accentuating the realities of the rapid turnaround deadline pressure is that many of the films being reviewed are as far from commercial fluff as is possible in world cinema; some of them demand the utmost concentration and total sensory engagement. And as the trade critic, you must then process what may be a mountain of a movie, translate it into a critical response, an analysis of its market and festival viability and convey to the reader a sense of the film’s content, feeling and texture, as well as its technical aspects. Not easy, I can tell you.
Sleeping Sickness is such a film. I won’t regurgitate its storyline and plot; that you can get plentifully elsewhere on the web at this point. More crucial is to suggest its shape-shifting qualities, qualities which prove key to the film’s meaning. While the opening section indicates a somewhat conventional drama about a German doctor (Koehler’s parents worked for awhile in the very Cameroon medical facility in which he films, heightening the sense of autobiography one step removed) whose wife has had it with life in Africa and whose departure points to a major life change for the doctor, the ensuing sections (the film is constructed in sections rather than sequences per se, although some sequences deliver extraordinary results) move the film into more mysterious and unsettling areas and tones.
As always, Koehler’s camera is calm, composed, slightly detached though not excessively so. I didn’t ask Koehler (when I ran into him last night, as one always seems to do in Berlin) if Antonioni’s The Passenger was at all on his mind during the conception, filming or editing phases, but Antonioni in general and The Passenger in particular resonated greatly to my eyes when viewing it. In both cases, Westerners in Africa are in secure professional positions which become destabilized, though while the mid-section of the Antonioni is where he deceives you with slightly more conventional film grammar, Koehler does this at the start, and moves toward stranger territory. Antonioni’s fascinations with the exchange of identities between characters, with the fundamental unknowability of a landscape and its culture to the visiting outsider (something he raised to operatic heights in his profound document of Maoist China, Chung Kuo Cina), with the radical project of de-dramatizing events and with the instability of narrative reflecting back on the instability of vision and a character’s identity are all richly woven into the fabric of Sleeping Sickness. Although I’ve never discussed Antonioni with Koehler (who may even possibly dislike his work), these aspects are distinctly there, and without any sense of imitation.
Like his colleagues in the so-called (and now retired) “Berlin School” (those Germans in Fainaru’s review deemed part of a “passivity school,” whatever that means), and maybe especially with fellow writer-director Maren Ade (who served as a producer on Sleeping Sickness), Koehler’s sense of cinema is as a medium of acutely attuned observation, not so much of placing people in a petri dish to note their reactions to fictional circumstances as a project of great sympathy and kindness without a shard of overt sentiment. There’s a scene when Folly’s Dr. Nzila has followed the grizzled doc Eddo (Pierre Bokma) to an unfinished property development overseen by some European capitalist operators: The physical space is open land, some if it covered in plywood and partial construction, suggesting the outlines of a major development but far from completion–and even very possibly never to be completed. Koehler’s framing foregrounds the plywood, as it extends to a distant point at which it stops abruptly, taken over by wild forest, the same forest where the film ends, where the pair of Europeans Nzila and Eddo become lost and ultimately transformed in different ways, a forest that can’t be tamed.
Sleeping Sickness is, in a classical sense, a comedy, since each man finds escape and relief (and definitely not death) in the end from an oppressive situation, and since their efforts are driven by the comic irony that Eddo’s efforts to stem debilitating sleeping sickness among villagers is so successful that he’s effectively worked himself out of a job. (In one of the film’s several funny lines of dialogue, Nzila jokes that, as the guy assigned to analyze the impact of Eddo’s efforts, he “hopes” there’s still some sleeping sickness around to monitor.) Koehler flips the old, tired scenarios of white-people-in-Africa movies on their heads: Rather than a failed attempt at “white man’s burden,” in the Conrad sense, the film actually observes what’s in effect a medical success, albeit a Pyrrhic one, and the white man is no longer just white–Nzila, who’s black, is European-born and educated, while Eddo, who’s white, has been in Africa so long that he’s comfortable nowhere else, even though he soon finds that he has nowhere to live, impregnating a woman whose family members treat him with a little less than love. The men are flipped, reversed, mirrored, contrasted and finally split, a process of separation, coming together and separation again. It’s this dynamic that informs the huge portion of the film, and amplifies Koehler’s extraordinary use of physical interior and exterior space to convey an unstable phenomenon, yet with a camera that remains firmly grounded and rigorously precise. Exactitude about questions which can’t be answered: This is the beginning point of ideas in Sleeping Sickness, quite possibly the year’s first truly great film.