Growing side by side

Susanne Wolff and Wolfgang Fischer on Styx, Charles Darwin and swimming against the current

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Susanne Wolff is a force to be reckoned with in Styx
Susanne Wolff is a force to be reckoned with in Styx Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Wolfgang Fischer's impassioned Styx, co-written with Ika Künzel, shot by Benedict Neuenfels (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Dominik Graf and Robby Müller collaborator), and edited by Monika Willi (Michael Haneke's Happy End, Amour, The White Ribbon, Funny Games, Time Of The Wolf, The Piano Teacher), takes us on an unexpected journey. Rike (Susanne Wolff, a forceful presence in almost every scene) is a German emergency doctor. She sails alone, heading to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, where Charles Darwin experimented with the coexistence of native and non-native flora and fauna.

Wolfgang Fischer on Susanne Wolff as Rike: "It was important that she's an emergency doctor, she's got the skills."
Wolfgang Fischer on Susanne Wolff as Rike: "It was important that she's an emergency doctor, she's got the skills."

After a violent storm, Rike finds herself confronted with a leaky, sinking, overcrowded fishing boat carrying desperate refugees. One of them, a boy with a bracelet spelling out Kingsley (Gedion Oduor Wekesa), manages to swim over to her. What is she to do? The Coast Guard seem to be stalling with their help, her own vessel could not hold all the refugees and she is being told to stay out of it.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Films have the power to let things come close that people often want to keep distant. I am thinking of Gianfranco Rosi's Fire At Sea, for example. Because of Dr. Bartolo in that film, perhaps people watching Styx might know what that burn is on Kingsley's back and where it came from and the emotional toll.

Wolfgang Fischer: It was clear right from the start to make a feature film and not a documentary and to show a very profound emotional experience, to share this experience with the audience. After screenings people approached me, telling me they know these facts from the newspapers and TV, they know what's going on. Yesterday there were 300 dying, the day before 400. But they could understand the situation emotionally, and not just dealing with facts. And it's to raise the question - what would I have done in this situation?

Styx director Wolfgang Fischer: "It was clear right from the start to make a feature film and not a documentary."
Styx director Wolfgang Fischer: "It was clear right from the start to make a feature film and not a documentary." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Especially in the scene where Susanne is saving Kingsley, we wanted to avoid any cliché. Not I give you a hand and I pull you up and that's it. But to show what's really happening and it's a very physical approach, not so much dialogue. For us it was important to stay in this situation and just in the perspective of our main character, not to jump on the other boat and show drama and make it bigger and play God. Just stay with her. For that reason it was important that she's an emergency doctor, she's got the skills.

AKT: Only once you jump into German, which is perfectly motivated. She is just so furious that these are the first words that came to mind.

Susanne Wolff: I like this scene very much because it shows the whole situation from the other point around. She is in the water and she realises what's going to happen if he really sails away. That's when she says "I don't have any understanding anymore. You never push me out of my boat again." And because we did almost everything as real, I realised what it means when you are pushed into the water and you try to swim after the boat. Somebody turns on the motor and the waves go into your direction and it's impossible.

And I have these rain trousers, I have the sneakers on, and it's impossible to swim. And I remember Benedict [Neuenfels], the DP was in the water as well and he screamed "Swim Susanne, swim!" They thought, hey she's giving up, why is she swimming so slowly? There were these security divers. And at one point I was like, I can't any more, it's impossible, it's so heavy to swim after this boat with the waves coming in my direction.

Wolfgang Fischer: "Tank ships avoid these areas … They are not prepared for rescue missions."
Wolfgang Fischer: "Tank ships avoid these areas … They are not prepared for rescue missions."

It was a real moment when I switched into German. I was upset and exhausted at the same time. And it's a scary moment. It refers also to the scene in the beginning when I jump by myself off the boat and I realise the beauty of the ocean and my boat.

AKT: It's such a great mirror. It's the first scene where we also notice the importance of the rope, and that she knows what she's doing and everything is under control. That mirror is being cracked open at the second ocean scene. There is a calm moment before the discovery of the other boat, where you are enjoying the sun and the sea, having coffee, reading the Darwin book.

What I like best about that scene is - no music. Any Hollywood standard fare would have started the violins, or whatever. Congratulations on that and keeping with the sounds of the waves.

WF: It was very difficult to record sounds on an open boat, especially to get the different kinds of wind into the microphones. And especially during the storms out of. Usually when you record storms is just like white noise.

And we used like twenty microphones. It was like building up a sound installation. We didn't use any archive, it's all the sounds we explored and recorded. That was very challenging for the sound crew and they did a marvellous job.

Susanne Wolff as Rike
Susanne Wolff as Rike

AKT: Yeah, because you can feel the ocean, calm and wild. It makes all the difference from CGI. An image I really like is when the boat goes by a big tanker and we see stripes. It almost looks like an abstract painting - a blue stripe, a terracotta stripe and the little boat.

WF: It's like Richard Serra.

AKT: A little, yeah. It's beautiful. How did Darwin's island enter the picture? Was that always the goal for her to go there?

WF: Yeah. It was the idea from my co-scriptwriter Ika Künzel. We were working on this script many many years and we heard about Ascension Island and what happened there. It's quite bizarre because in former times it was just a volcano island and then Charles Darwin came and started an experiment. He collected plants from all over the world and migrated them to this island.

Susanne Wolff: "I have these rain trousers, I have the sneakers on, and it's impossible to swim."
Susanne Wolff: "I have these rain trousers, I have the sneakers on, and it's impossible to swim."

There are plants growing there right now, side by side, which don't belong to each other. He built an artificial paradise. This experiment is now the basis for all biosphere experiments. How to travel to Mars? How we can build an artificial paradise to take with us. I like the idea very much that she is going to this island.

AKT: The name Ascension, also.

WF: And it's not this Charles Darwin with his claim of the survival of the fittest.

AKT: It's another Charles Darwin.

WF: And I like this Charles Darwin much much more, because he did this incredible experiment. And if plants can grow side by side, why can't we do it as human beings?

AKT: The idea of native species. I did become a wildlife rehabilitator, partly because that struck me as a contrived argument in many cases. New York State wanting to get rid of all Mute Swans, for instance, because they arbitrarily claim that they are not native.

Susanne Wolff: "I remember that I saw the boat for weeks and weeks and weeks from my boat."
Susanne Wolff: "I remember that I saw the boat for weeks and weeks and weeks from my boat."

In Styx, I noticed that she is taking her medical notes about the boy in a book under the title "Places to Remember". The discrepancy is so simple and striking. The places to remember are not the tourist stuff, but the wounds on this child's body.

SW: Yes.

AKT: "Our company has a strict policy" and "I cannot risk my job," says the person we never see.

WF: We did research and this happens many times. It's really against international sea law. Because it's your duty, if somebody's in danger, we are supposed to help these people. But in this case, there is no help for these people and it happens quite often.

Tank ships avoid these areas because if they stop these ships they lose such an amount of money. It's a kind of capitalism which drives them through the ocean and they're not allowed to stop for anything. They are not prepared for rescue missions.

AKT: But the rescue works, when the people are dead. Then everything becomes fast. One last point - the moment when you go down into the refugee boat, can you talk a bit about that scene? You descend into hell.

Wolfgang Fischer with Susanne Wolff in New York
Wolfgang Fischer with Susanne Wolff in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SW: Yeah. I remember that I saw the boat for weeks and weeks and weeks from my boat. And then there was the shooting day when I stepped for the first time on this boat. It was more or less dark. It was kind of scary. And there were people lying around. And I had only this little red lamp on my hat. It felt quite real even though I never experienced that kind of situation before. I was really surprised by myself about this look in my eyes. When you see my face? I was surprised by myself by this expression.

And then I realised that everything we shot until this moment - it was more or less the end of the shooting. I could see it that it was a heavy time. Because everything was so real and so was the boat situation. Also the smell of the boat, the engine, everything was so exhausting on this boat. It was tiny, there was this oil smell and the water underneath. We didn't talk so much on this boat, there was no conversation at all. It's difficult to explain.

AKT: The fact that you were surprised by your own face explains a lot. It's supremely human. Basic human decency. In this world of so many screens, there is something very visceral in this look.

SW: Because I can't remember that you [to Wolfgang] said "Give me that kind of look". It was just uncovering I have this look. We didn't talk about it.

Read what Susanne Wolff and Wolfgang Fischer had to say on the high seas and shooting Styx.

Styx is in cinemas in the UK and US.

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