Thursday, November 2, 2023

A Ghost Anywhere

Schlafkrankheit/Sleeping Sickness (2011) - Köhler Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 9.26.06 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.32.14 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.35.24 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.26.56 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.27.29 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.28.03 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 9.27.17 AM Screen Shot 2023-11-02 at 11.28.33 AM Ulrich Köhler's Sleeping Sickness examines a complicated relationship between Europe and Africa. It also shows how losing one's identity (in this case, being a German) is indirectly, but yet deeply connected to Germany's colonial, post-war revival past.

Epidemiologist Dr. Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma) and his wife Vera have been stationed in Cameroon for a long time. Velten is there to eradicate Sleeping Sickness, the insect borne disease that causes neurological problems if untreated. He has been successful and therefore, he has no reason to stay there any longer. It's time for him and his wife to go back to Germany. But something is nagging at him. Their sullen teenage daughter's visit only exacerbates his ambivalent feeling about going back home to his mundane life as a pharmacist, according to his expat doctor/industrialist pal Gaspard (Hippolyte Girardot), "prescribing pills for a living in the suburbs."

We see the whites' arrogance and the locals peddling for their money everywhere - at checkpoints, in restaurants, in Velten's home with guards, peddlers in city streets, in medical board meetings. The colonialism and free market enabled this ugly relationship to perpetuate and made any meaningful relationship between them impossible. The wife and daughter go home. Three years pass by.

A well-meaning, young doctor Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly) who works for the World Health Organization is first seen at a medical conference where a black representative is advocating cutting off relief funds to Africa and letting the free market take care of everything. He scoffs at the speaker. After Alex deflects his colleague's racist joke with 'I am born here,' speech, he is sent to Cameroon to evaluate Velten's project on sleeping sickness. The problem is, when he gets there to his compound/clinic, in the remote jungle, the German doctor is never around to meet with him. After failing to perform a Cesarean birth by throwing up and passing out on Velten's pregnant Cameroonian wife, Alex finally meets Velten. But it seems the illness is almost eradicated in the region. Then why does Velten ask for an evaluation on his progress?

It becomes slightly clear that it's Velten's cry for help, who is in the country he doesn't belong to and perhaps doesn't belong anywhere. He is pulling Colonel Kurtz. He is completely lost and wants someone else to decide his destiny.

The film ends with Velten and Gaspard taking Alex to a night time hunting in the jungle. Alex has no idea what they are hunting for. Again, for Alex, it's a wild goose chase.

Sleeping Sickness is a complex film that says a lot about colonialism and its ugly symbiotic relationship in capitalist society. As a German directed film with a German main character, the subtext of losing one's identity in a global capitalist system and yearning for some sort of metamorphosis is quite striking.