The first—and so far only—great film of the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, Ulrich Köhler’s “Sleeping Sickness” (Schlafkrankheit) opens on a dark stretch of highway somewhere in Cameroon, where a German doctor and his wife are returning from the airport with their teenage daughter, who is on holiday from boarding school. At a security checkpoint, they are detained by armed officers who ask to see the daughter’s passport, which can’t be found. Then, one of the officers recognizes the doctor, whose name is Ebbo and who has been working for two decades in the local villages, heading up an aggressive campaign against an epidemic of sleeping sickness. Soon, they are on the road again, but something lingers in the air, because this scene, which seems to be about not very much, has communicated volumes about the relationship between this man and this woman, between this daughter and her parents, and between Europe and Africa.
“Sleeping Sickness” is a movie constructed almost entirely of such moments, scenes that course with the richness and complexity of everyday life transfigured into drama. Early on, we learn that we are witnessing the last days of this family in Africa—soon, they will return to Europe and to lives long ago put on hold—and this has thrown Ebbo into a state of crisis. “Your blacker than I am,” notes one of the locals when Ebbo refuses to dismiss the local superstition of inter-species transmutation (one of several touches that recall the work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul), and gradually we see that Ebbo, like Conrad’s Kurtz, has spent too much time up river to ever come back down. There is another remarkable scene that deserves to be singled out, in which the wife, Vera, reads the daughter, Helen, a love letter written to her by Ebbo long ago, then says, “It’s saved us several times.” It is a scene Chekhov might have written.
Then, around the 40-minute mark, about the same time that Marion Crane stepped into the shower in “Psycho,” there is a rupture in the film. The screen goes black, and when the image returns some unspecified amount of time has passed. We are now in Europe, where a young black doctor—a Frenchman born to Congolese parents—is preparing to make his first trip to Africa, to evaluate the efficiency of the sleeping sickness program. But when he gets there, nothing goes according to plan—the doctor he is looking for is nowhere to be found, the epidemic appears to be under control, and despite his heritage, he feels very much a stranger in a strange land. Having spent the first half of the “Sleeping Sickness” seeing Africa through the eyes of a white man long on the continent, we now see it through the eyes of a black man newly arrived, and it seems no less mysterious, unknowable. Finally, when the two halves of the film dovetail—effortlessly, seamlessly—the cumulative impact is stunning.
“Sleeping Sickness” is the third feature directed by Köhler, one of the brightest talents of the group of new German filmmakers known collectively as the “Berlin School,” and like his second, the excellent “Windows on Monday,” it concerns a kind of existential drift, between how we envision our lives and how they end up turning out. In the earlier movie, a woman abruptly walks away one morning from her husband and child and wanders through the woods like a zombie, eventually ending up at a deluxe health spa, where, among other thing s, she encounters an aging tennis pro played by Ilie Nastase. Here, Ebbo (played brilliantly by the Dutch actor Pierre Bokma) is a monument to once-lofty ideals worn down by experience. What is to become of a doctor with no epidemic left to cure, and no country to call home.
As a child, Köhler spent five years living in Zaire (now Congo), and Sleeping Sickness is rich in local sights and sounds that feel diaristic rather than touristic. (In one wonderful shot, we see young men selling shoes at a crowded intersection, one shoe balanced perfectly on each of their heads, like a display case.) At the center of the film, there is also a complex question about whether the future of Africa lies in increased trade or increased aid—a question to which Köhler does not purport to know the answer, though he clearly knows a lot about the forced compromises of people and nations. I am haunted by this film, and look forward to my second viewing—and your first.
Scott Foundas is the Associate Program Director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a Contributing Editor at Film Comment magazine.