Friday, December 14, 2012

Sleeping Sickness

Sleeping Sickness (2011, Germany co-production, Ulrich Köhler)

Ulrich Köhler's film was my first choice for a German film entry for the Euro 2012 Book & Film Spotlight. However, the film only got a limited theatrical release in Canada (Toronto & Vancouver) and was not available for viewing prior to the Euro deadline of June 2012. Therefore, I had to leave the film out of the spotlight. Thankfully, the film is now available across Canada via Films We Like & iTunes and I am glad to have seen the film in 2012. Sleeping Sickness is indeed a mesmerizing film and it is easy to see why this film was #9 in Cinema Scope's Best of 2011 list. Cinema Scope's editor, Mark Peranson, has an excellent essay which outlines the film's beauty and charm. The entire essay is worth reading but I want to focus on the following:

Though there is a slight mirroring of Ebbo and Alex, there’s nothing simple about it, and this structural looseness is perhaps the closest that Köhler’s version of the cinema of the opaque comes to Apichatpong; to make this comparison due to the mere presence of a jungle is indicative of lazy thinking, akin to bringing up Claire Denis because she’s also a European filmmaker shooting in Africa. Indeed, I suspect most people who will watch Sleeping Sickness, like myself, will have formed their views of Africa through fiction, literature or film made by Europeans—hence the many comparisons of Sleeping Sickness to Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene (Köhler says the film was sparked by Sudanese author Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, and indeed the main characters are richly novelistic and complex—they jump off the page).

I had not read his essay prior to seeing the film but surprisingly found myself thinking of both Claire Denis & Apichatpong while watching Sleeping Sickness. Peranson attributes this comparison as "lazy thinking" but atleast qualifies it with the following words that are true in my case: "most people who will watch Sleeping Sickness,...,will have formed their view of African through fiction, literature or film made by Europeans". It is not true that any film shot in Cameroon by a European brings Claire Denis to mind. In my case, the comparison to Denis' White Material came about by seeing Ebbo's isolation. In the first part of the film, it is shown that the sleeping sickness disease is almost cured and no longer an epidemic. That means there is no need for further funding and Ebbo can conclude his work & return to Germany. Yet, he does not return home like his wife. He stays behind for a further three years and becomes as isolated like Isabelle Huppert's Maria in White Material. Both Ebbo & Maria appear to be clinging on desperately so as to avoid returning back to Europe. It is clear that it will take a lot of effort to force both Maria & Ebbo to leave Africa. In Maria's case, Africa is her home and she has a business to protect while Ebbo seems to have developed a deeper connection with his surroundings. One part of Ebbo wants to return back but another part wants to live in the jungle. This inner struggle causes him to appear on the edge, one step away from ending it all. The Apichatpong reference also jumps out not only because of the jungle but the presence of a key transformation that occurs near the end of a film divided in two parts. Like Tropical Malady, there is a connection between the two parts shown in the film and the hippo transformation that takes place near the film's end is mentioned in the first part.

Overall, Sleeping Sickness is unique and manages to haunt one's memory long after the film's final image.

As a late correction to the Euro 2012 Spotlight, I decided to plug Sleeping Sickness into the game 1 results to see how the final group standings would get impacted. Currently, game 1 results show Portugal's Mysteries of Lisbon defeating Germany's Storm by a 5-1 margin. With Sleeping Sickness taking part instead of Storm, this is how things would turn out:

Germany (Sleeping Sickness) vs Portugal (Mysteries of Lisbon)

Acting: Portugal
Story: Both Portugal & Germany
Direction: Germany
Cinematography: Germany
Production: Both Portugal & Germany

Final result would see Germany prevail 4-3 over Portugal. As a result, Germany would get 3 points and Portugal 0. Therefore, the final group standings would look like this:

Team         Points   Goal Difference 

Portugal     6            5 - 3
Holland      6            5 - 3
Germany    4            5 - 5
Denmark    1            3 - 6

Portugal & Holland would end up with the same number of points and goal difference. But Portugal would still take first place due to their 1-0 win over Holland which will be used as a head-to-head tie-breaker. Therefore, the top 2 spots in the group won't get altered which means all the results from the quarter-finals onwards would remain the same.


Sam Juliano said...

"Indeed, I suspect most people who will watch Sleeping Sickness, like myself, will have formed their views of Africa through fiction, literature or film made by Europeans—"

Indeed Sachin, though I'd have to add the Father of African Cinema, Ouseme Sembene to this mix. A number of his films do accurately gage some of the social and political aspects of African life, in a manner detached from European perceptions and sensibilities. I must say I really can't wait to see SLEEPING SICKNESS, and was riveted to your description/appreciation and reference links. Apichatpong and Denis are compelling names in this mix for sure. Wow, German and Portugal performing superbly at this point!

Sachin said...

That's right Sam, Sembene's films perfectly presented the social aspects of African life. However, I didn't think of his films because he showed life from an African perspective whereas it is clear SLEEPING SICKNESS shows life from a foreigner's view point. I do hope you get the chance to see this.

Thanks for your comment.