It could be reasonably argued that if European cinema of the 2010s is to be criticized for anything, it might be an inability to tackle a refugee crisis which first rocked the continent in 2015. That summer felt like a relentless nightmare of suffering. The harrowing images of infants drowning on our shores, the death toll-focused headlines about overturned dinghies and the creeping rise of far-right populism. With the expectation of the odd compelling documentary (2017’s Another News Story took the media’s coverage to task), fiction film responses have been practically non-existent.
Enter Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx; a complete, minimalistic morality play set at the frontlines of the crisis. We follow German paramedic Rike (Susanne Wolff) during some time off as she sails solo on a yacht somewhere in middle of the Atlantic. Much of the muted first half is bare bones filmmaking with less words of dialogue then there are boats on screen. At first, it appears as if we are in similar territory to Robert Redford’s 2013 vehicle All is Lost, with our isolated hero battling the elements to survive at sea. A gruelling thunderstorm sees our adept sailor combat howling winds and ferocious waves as we watch through our fingers and the temperature in the cinema feels like it plummets below freezing.
It’s following that taxing aside that Styx changes tact and becomes a more interesting beast. In the aftermath of the hazardous downpour, Rike sees a distressed vessel in the middle of the ocean and is dragged into an ethical dilemma in the process. The small boat is overcrowded with African migrants calling for assistance and her yacht can’t possibly take all of those in need on board. The authorities advise her not to get too close as she runs the risk of a causing panic on the migrant boat, prompting the refugees to jump ship and risk their lives—a prediction we see come to fruition.
The metaphor is clear to see. Rike, a well-to-do European, can only look on in horror from the privileged position of her expensive, well-stocked yacht as the misery unfolds. A nearby cargo ship refuses to assist due to a cruel company policy and the coast guard assures her they are on the way but never seem to appear. She is Europe itself, grappling with a humanitarian plight that she struggles to reckon with as she watches in relative comfort. Rike eventually intervenes, saving a pre-pubescent migrant boy who almost drowns trying to get to her. But Is one enough? And is she obliged to save more?
Styx’s unadorned style means it isn’t exactly the most obviously virtuosic of works. It’s difficult to recall many moments where the camera moved with much purpose. Early stretches alone with Rike will test the patience of even the most tolerant viewer—especially those who saw All Is Lost as the overrated slog it was. Fischer’s sea-fairing realism does, however, make both the migrant’s hardship and Rike’s arduous attempts at rescue feel genuinely gut-wrenching when it calls for it. While Styx may not be essential cinema, it certainly is immediate cinema. This, more than anything, is what makes it worthwhile.
For much of the runtime Fischer might be accused of sitting on the fence. This is before the final moments act as a devastating clarification of his position. Styx then becomes a call, or wail, for human decency. That last scene suddenly recontextualises a seemingly throwaway opening coda as something much more significant. It’s in Germany. We see a car crash on a quiet street. Within minutes, the area is cordoned off. Onlookers appear concerned as police and ambulance rush to the scene and work to save a driver badly injured in the collision. For just one man, we see the local community descend upon the scene to provide aid any way they can. For scores of migrants at sea, we see quite the opposite. Where you were born determines so much, including if your life is worth saving.