Review of Sleeping Sickness

Another review written by Ethan on the film Sleeping Sickness

Viewing context:
This was the first film we saw at the festival, and it was met with
extremely mixed reviews from the group. Ben and I thought it was
pretty brilliant, and Shea hated it so much he wanted to leave the
entire time. Aaron wasn’t sure how he felt.

    Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness (Schlafkrankheit) is as opposite to
Hollywood in style and structure as you can get. You’re find yourself
somewhere in the middle of the complicated and potentially
disintegrating marriage between Ebbo (Pierre Bokma) and Vera Velten
(Jenny Schily), and you have little assistance in finding your
footing.* Eventually, it becomes clear that Ebbo works with a clinic
in Cameroon, and is facing the ultimatum of leaving the country and
his work in order to be closer to his teenaged daughter in who is at
boarding school in Germany, or risk losing his family entirely. You
catch onto this through the vibrant, hyper-real performances by Bokma
and Schily.
    Eventually Ebbo’s wife and daughter leave for Germany leaving him to
use his last few weeks in Cameroon to tie up loose ends and help
ensure the clinic will be able to function after his departure. It
soon becomes clear that even the thought of leaving the raw and
unpredictable lifestyle in Cameroon might be too much for Ebbo to
bear. The film as a whole achieves the rare and impressive feat of
conveying the physical and emotional gist of an entire geographical
region. The camera moves with eerie resemblance to how we use our own
eyes. It becomes distracted by beautiful nature off to the side, it
scan a new environments regardless of whether there is anything of
importance to be found nearby in the foreground. It is exploring its
environment just as we are exploring this unfamiliar land. As we watch
Ebbo say his goodbyes to the country he loves, you understand how
Cameroon’s culture and surging lifeforce can be addictive.
By capitalizing on the predictable rhythms moviegoers are conditioned
to respond to, throughout the film Köhler creates suspense when none
exists (I found myself breaking a sweat during each lengthy shot of
the road from the passenger’s perspective), and startles us when we
least expect it. The film is thrilling, but far from a thriller.
    Now past the halfway point in the festival, Sleeping Sickness remains
towards the top of my list of most memorable/favorite films seen here.

Other News:
Aaron was telling me about how he overheard some distribution company
talking about the dearth of dearth of “mind-blowing” films this year.
I don’t really have anything to compare this year’s lineup to, but the
idea of expecting to have your mind blown when you sit down in a
theater is one interesting for discussion. It’s kind of the antithesis
of how we’ve been going into screenings here, which most of the time
is with zero prior knowledge about the film, and no expectations. More
on the idea of expectations in film to come….

*Full disclosure: we walked into the film about five minutes late. I’m
still fairly confident that everything I’ve written is accurate.

About Aaron Winckler

Undergraduate Student at Brandeis University, Student Assistant at Center for German and European Studies, Co-coordinator of Jewish-German Dialogue Program
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