Susanne Wolff and Gedion Oduor Wekesa co-star in the drama/thriller Styx.

A humanitarian crisis and a crisis of conscience converge in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a life-or-death situation that tests the mettle and moral compass of an intelligent doctor—and the viewers, too. 

In a very thoughtful character study and sociological allegory, writer/director Wolfgang Fischer sets up a crucial event encountered by seemingly very capable German M.D. Rike (Susanne Wolff). While sailing her boat out on the ocean by herself, she encounters a stranded ship full of African refugees. Calm but determined, she sends radio messages calling for assistance. Her SOS and Maydays are received by nearby vessels who say protocol designates that they not participate in any rescue missions. The Coast Guard warns her to stay away, as the quantity of people on the ship, if loaded onto her boat, could put her safety in jeopardy. Now what? 

The alternatives she contemplates and decisions she needs to make go beyond her scope. As a doctor, she has obligations to patients and society that others may not have. Rike, in a hospital emergency room, is accustomed to the principles that guide her profession when administering aid. In addition, she has taken the Hippocratic Oath, which reads in part: “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment.” Little of that has prepared her for this fork in the road. What should she do next?

Weighing on Rike’s conscience is the fate of innocent people. It’s a plight that intensifies when she helps one of the stranded onboard, a young boy named Kingsley (Gedion Oduor Weseka). Now, she wrestles even more with her conscience, the boy’s desire to save his sister, the indifference of ships in the area and a Coast Guard that seems detached and far away. 

Viewers will put themselves in her shoes. They’ll wonder if they would put their lives on the line for others or if self-preservation would take over. Expect the humane part of audiences to demand that Rike help those facing death, while their survivalist tendencies will want her to sit and wait. What are the personal, social and ethical ramifications of inaction? That is what drives the film.

The footage was largely shot from a small sailboat, making cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels a near genius for keeping his lens, lighting and camera equipment out of view as he chronicles the intimate moments of this drama/thriller for 94 minutes. Dirk von Lowtzow’s musical score provides that right amount of white noise. Just when you start to get weary of this emotionally draining situation, it ends precisely when it should. That’s thanks to the script and very judicious editor Monika Willi’s perfect timing.

Fischer’s style indicates that he is far more interested in telling stories visually than with words. The first half-hour and its dearth of conversation keeps your eyes glued to the screen so you don’t get lost as the characters and storyline evolve. 

Your hopes, apprehension and disdain are all mirrored by Susanne Wolff’s performance—or vice versa. She pulls you into her ambivalence—up, down, left, right, back and forth. You wish she would act on her medical and maternal instincts quicker. Yet, she grabs your attention, doesn’t let go and makes you wait and wait. 

In an equally compelling portrayal, and with even far less dialogue, Gedion Oduor Weseka pulls you into his character’s wretched, tormented orbit. With just his eyes, tears and some rebellions actions, he rips Rike’s heart right out of her chest. 

This isn’t a straightforward survival film like Robert Redford in All Is Lost, or Tom Hanks in Cast Away. The central character’s life is not at stake because of the elements. Instead other lives are at risk because of her decisions or indecision. The existential elements of this very contemporary rumination are obvious. Bringing the plight of refugees to the forefront is noble. It’s enough to make this excursion–which piques fear, sadness and anger–haunting. 

In Greek mythology, the deity and river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld is called Styx. It’s a crossroads. 

At some point in this thought-provoking film, when the protagonist comes to a critical place of convergence, these profound words are said: “I have no answer for you. I don’t know what to do.” 

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