Fever Dream
by Genevieve Yue

Sleeping Sickness
Dir. Ulrich Köhler, Germany, No distributor

Like Claire Denis’s recent White Material, Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness, which earned a Silver Bear for directing at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, is something of a postcolonial Heart of Darkness, a complex and at times allegorical portrait of Europeans living in Africa. On the surface, at least, Köhler’s film appears more grounded in realism than Denis’s delirious terror, focusing on the twinned stories of two doctors: Eddo Velten (Pierre Bokma), who oversees a program to combat African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, in rural Cameroon, and Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), the Congo-born Parisian who’s sent to investigate his progress. Köhler is also more explicitly interested in the broader structure of international aid, addressing, and perhaps indicting, an entire system that, while it successfully treats and contains the outbreak of infectious illness, also breeds other types of maladies: corruption, exploitation, and the continued economic and political imbalance between the two regions. Sleeping Sickness, however, refrains from an activist viewpoint and describes instead an entrenched bureaucratic and moral morass that’s as murky as its hippo-infested waters.

The film is divided in two parts, the first of which begins shortly before Velten is supposed to return to Germany with his wife, Vera (Jenny Schily), and teenage daughter, Helen (Maria Elise Miller). The soft-bellied, floppy-haired Velten might have a ready smile, but as the opening’s tense exchange at a police checkpoint demonstrates, he has an irascible sense of entitlement that’s held in check only by his wife, as no one else dares stand in the good doctor’s way. His employees regard him warily, and Helen, fresh from two years at boarding school, sees most clearly the misguided man her father has become. At a lakeside beach, after he unsuccessfully tries to coax Helen to swim, an argument erupts between the pair. “Bloody missionary,” Helen spits at her father, and he in turn throws her into the water.

The second part, which abruptly jumps ahead three years, begins at a Parisian conference on African economics. As a speaker criticizes the efficacy of international aid programs, proposing instead the neoliberal solution of allowing the free market to run its supposed course, Nzila sits among the mostly white audience, clearly disgusted with what he’s hearing. His liberal outrage, however, is put to the test when he’s sent to Cameroon to investigate Velten’s sleeping sickness treatment program for the World Health Organization. However much he knows about the required vaccinations for visitors to sub-Saharan Africa, the reality on the ground is far different. The foreign (despite the color of his skin) and thoroughly bourgeois Nzila is suspicious of a cigarette vendor and the driver that picks him up from the airport; at his remote country dorm, he finds he can’t sleep, and instead of leaving the security of his mosquito net to venture outside, he pisses into an empty water bottle.

Velten, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found, and Nzila’s discomfort grows. After days of waiting—for a moment the film seems to be veering into Beckett territory—the wayward doctor finally appears, more erratic than ever, and now the father of an infant born to a local woman named Jo. As for Velten’s epidemiological efforts, the hundreds of cases the hospital used to see has dwindled to just a handful a week. When Nzila visits the treatment center, he finds its sole patient in a room that seems to double as a chicken coop; perversely, it seems, the program might have been too successful. In a system that trades African sickness for international aid, disease is transformed into an industry whose most visible byproduct might be Velten’s growing derangement.

Köhler knows this material well, having spent his boyhood in Zaire as the child of European relief workers. The film’s politics, however, are more complicated than they might appear. Recently Köhler published the polemical “Why I Don’t Make Political Films,” in which he interrogates how much concrete impact topical work, however well-intentioned, actually has. “If art is political,” he writes, “then it is so in exactly this manner: it resists its appropriation for daily political and social concerns. Its strength lies in its autonomy.” He urges artists to think beyond matters of political content to the politics of image production itself, from funding sources to eventual audiences, and to interrogate cinema’s presumed ideological neutrality as something already imbricated in a pervasive system of power and injustice.

Such a pointed Adornian critique is less easy to detect in Sleeping Sickness, which overtly addresses political subject matter, though it does so in a way that becomes, over time, increasingly unstable. Like his patients, Velten falls victim to a kind of disease, drifting slowly away from the idealistic young doctor we hear in a letter Vera reads aloud to Helen and turning towards corruption and complacence. Writing to his then-pregnant wife, he confesses his fear in hearing the story of a colleague who, not knowing the man he was treating was ill, had examined him without gloves. The threat of contagion in those early years, however, was about a kind of intimacy, one that, according to Vera, also saved their marriage as well. Twenty years later, Velten’s sickness is his isolation from his family (or families, one European and the other African) and the hospital staff he governs like a petty tyrant. He warms, however, to Nzila, perhaps recalling his own disorienting arrival in Africa. While his staff attempted to hide from Nzila the truth of the sleeping sickness program, Velten lays it bare, opening, additionally, his tumultuous domestic life to the young doctor and taking him to the oneiric network of bridges that he and his mercenary employer, Gaspard (Hippolyte Girardot), are constructing as part of a shady, unnamed business scheme.

The film’s final sequence descends, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, into literal darkness, as Velten and Nzila, along with Gaspard and an assistant, embark on a night-hunting expedition in the jungle, and the film’s last night takes an unexpected turn toward the supernatural (Köhler has cited the Thai director as a significant influence). Cinematographer Patrick Orth shot these scenes using only the ambient light of the moon and the actor’s headlamps, and their shaky, handheld dimness, along with the sound of brushed leaves, heavy breathing, and belabored footsteps, make anything seem possible: danger, certainly, but also the mysterious forms that emerge from the shadows, the monsters that even the best of us might slowly become. In the groggy morning, when a canoe quietly slides into shore, the surprise is not that someone has disappeared, but that anyone survived at all.