Rike (Susanne Wolff) is the medic of a German first-response team. She makes rational decisions within seconds, deciding over life and death of a car crash victim. She is good at her job. Firemen, policemen and civilians follow her orders while she deals with the dead and severely injured. She has seen a lot of human drama, so when she takes a holiday, it’s not surprising that she wants to go sailing on her own. Her destination is Ascension Island, right in the middle of the Atlantic, between Brasil and Angola. We see her load her sailboat, the Ava Gray, and start out from Gibraltar. She has radio contact with coast guards and other ships, she weathers a storm, she enjoys the journey, she likes the solitude, and then she encounters a boat overloaded with refugees.
Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx is a sparse and lean film. It shows rather than tells; it uses dialogue only when it needs to. I had to think of All Is Lost more than once because both movies have a documentary feel about them. There is a scene where Rike takes all of two minutes to hoist the exhausted, half-conscious Kingsley on board. He is a teenager who had the luck to reach Rike’s boat – one of the few who were able to swim and reach the Ava Gray. Rike gets to work: she nurses Kingsley back to health, like he was any other of her patients. He isn’t, and Rike will have to pretend that her hippocratic oath is all that she needs to determine her actions. Kingsley tells her to save more people than just him, most of all his sister, who is still on the boat, while Rike tries to explain to him that they don’t have enough food and water to save so many, or even all of the people. Kingsley insists, and so does Rike. And then the boat starts sinking.
Susanne Wolff delivers a memorable performance: we see her set sail and live on the boat, and then we watch her defend her own actions and ethical decisions against the coast guard, and against Kingsley. She knows it is all up to her and her boat because the coast guard has made it very clear that they won’t turn up, and that she is breaking the law by saving lives. If she wouldn’t save lives, she would not keep her hippocratic oath. There is a moment when Kingsley throws one water bottle after the next into the wake of the Ava Gray. Rike looks on, and although she does not condone his actions, she doesn’t interfere because she understands what he is doing. I have a suspicion that she herself would be unable to do it, but admires Kingsley for the risk he takes.
Styx portrays the refugees on the boat only as outlines just within shouting distance. At first, I thought it was another example of white guilt, but no: there are people jumping off the boat who clearly cannot swim. Realizing that the yelling stops, and that an eerie silence descends over the waves, is way more effective than showing refugees drowning. This is not an action piece in any way, but a tale about moral considerations. Rike fails the people on the boat before she even knows what is happening. She saves Kingsley, but how far is she supposed to go in order to save as many people as possible? In a very real way, Styx is a post-apocalyptical movie: there is a sinking boat with far too many refugees on board. The catastrophe happened when they boarded the vessel. The movie undermines sterotyping: Kingsley is not the grateful black kid, and Rike doesn’t have the white saviour complex. Both are human beings thrown into the same desperate situation by chance. As they say, this isn’t based on a true story; this is happening.