For Reel

Sleeping Sickness (2011)
March 30, 2012, 1:13 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Ulrich Köhler

Ulrich Köhler won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival with Sleeping Sickness, a harrowing, if somewhat familiar story about European neocolonialism in Africa. The first third of the film introduces Eddo Velten, a white doctor played with distancing, ill-tempered condescension by Pierre Bokma, who heads a program fighting off the titular epidemic in a rural part of Cameroon. As his chapter ends, he apparently sets off to join his wife and daughter back in Germany. Three years later, Gaspard, a black, Parisian-born doctor for the World Heath Organization, is sent to evaluate the clinic that Bokma had established and, as it turns out, has yet to evacuate. Hippolyte Girardot affably plays the outsider, successfully suggesting the fears of being stranded in a foreign world with great understatement. The way that Köhler introduces Gaspard to his sleeping quarters – a dark, dank set of rooms that sit in the middle of a lush jungle – builds tremendous anxiety without manufacturing the fear through non-diegetic means. Later, there is a similarly terrifying sequence in which Gaspard has to perform a caesarean section on a woman while receiving his surgical instructions on the telephone. Though the fish-out-of-water element is not particularly new, nor is the struggle of a well-meaning Westerner attempting to coexist with the wary natives of a third-world setting, Köhler’s use of elliptical storytelling creates a disorienting tone that masterfully accentuates the narrative.


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