By Jake Watt
27th May 2019

Director Wolfgang Fischer’s ‘Styx’ opens with a quiet street in Germany as it's suddenly disrupted by a car crash. The accident provides the backdrop for introducing the main character in the film, the paramedic Rieke (Susanne Wolff, ‘Return to Montauk’). In her 40s, Rieke is cool-headed, proficient and about to embark on the holiday of a lifetime. She plans to sail a 12-metre yacht singlehandedly from Gibraltar to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, some halfway between Africa and South America. Rieke’s boat is named after botanist Asa Gray and her goal is to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, who tinkered with the ecology of Ascension Island, using it for the world's first experiment in "terraforming" by importing plants from botanical gardens all over the world.

For long stretches, ‘Styx’ has little dialogue. Like JC Chandor’s ‘All Is Lost’, we are introduced to the complex mechanics of sailing a small boat in the middle of the ocean, including navigating a fierce nighttime storm. So, for a good 40 minutes, Rieke is just sailing her little white boat and sharing meaningful looks with the odd seagull (they lack the screen time and chemistry of Blake Lively and Steven Seagull in ‘The Shallows’).

The film switches gear dramatically when Fischer and co-writer Ika Künzel float the notion that there might be something more compelling and provocative in the sight of a struggling sailor encountering others in even more dire conditions. Having survived the storm, Rieke spots a leaky trawler overflowing with African refugees. Highly alarmed, she does her duty according to maritime law, immediately issuing a mayday call and informing the coast guard. In response, the coast guard notes her call and strongly warns her against intervening personally.


Forced to sit idly on board her small craft, Rieke has everything - food, water, medicine, the most advanced navigational equipment. A few hundred metres away, a vessel is sinking with a hundred refugees on board who have nothing.

Witnessing the dilemma of the refugees firsthand as their ship begins to sink, Rieke refuses to leave the scene and repeatedly requests assistance. Every time, she is instructed to leave the area and not to intervene. Frustrated with the negligence of the coast guard, she contacts another ship in the area, a tanker. However, the crewman have received strict instructions from the company not to intervene in such a situation, at the risk of losing their jobs.

Does Rieke heed the slow-moving authorities’ terse communiques to maintain a distance, or follow her training and instincts to provide the help her fellow travellers are pleading for? What choices would you make in her situation? What mistakes could you live with?

This brings us back to the title of the film and its possible implications. In Greek mythology, the River Styx plays an important role in the geography of the underworld. It is the boundary that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. When souls enter the territory of Hades, they must pay Charon, the ferryman, a fee in order to cross the Styx. This is a role that Rieke unwillingly finds herself in. Styx was also the name of an Oceanid nymph who, in classical myths, supported Zeus in the Titanomachy, where she was said to be the first to rush to his aid. In this film, aid is something Rieke is unable to provide.

Does Rieke heed the slow-moving authorities’ terse communiques to maintain a distance, or follow her training and instincts to provide the help her fellow travellers are pleading for? What choices would you make in her situation? What mistakes could you live with?

Fischer’s direction is precise and effortlessly ratchets up the tension as the situation drags on with no help in sight. Cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels’s crystalline shots of deep blue waters and clear skies only add to the sense that Rieke must make a decision entirely on her own. Most of the filming took place on the high seas, and the cinematography vividly depicts the enormous challenges involved in combating the elements solo. In the process of making ‘Styx’, the director worked closely with voluntary organisations that assist refugees in distress at sea, and the film is based on genuine encounters.

In Australia, political debate is more often about ways to stop refugees from reaching the country. Asylum seekers have attempted to reach our shores on boats from Indonesia, often paying large sums of money to people smugglers. Hundreds have died making the dangerous journey. A focus on deterring asylum seekers limits the promotion of human rights in the region and farther afield, and continues to impede the achievement of a protection framework that is so sorely needed. Yet our Prime Minister was instrumental in designing the country’s notoriously harsh border protection policies, and still has a trophy in the shape of a migrant boat with the caption "I Stopped These" in his office.

In 'Styx', Rieke is shown the limits of her importance and of the empathy of her cultural milieu. She is left slipping impotently from one nightmare to the next, and by the end she is forced to recognise that there is no way to counter the cruelties of real life. In fact, Fischer’s film makes clear that the real criminals are the politicians who have callously sanctioned a policy that has allowed tens of thousands of helpless men, women and children to die at sea.

'Styx' reminds us of the plight of refugees who risk everything in the ocean, and the damage caused by bureaucracy and by-the-book policy. A work of nail-biting drama that is not only superbly executed but exceedingly timely, it is a film that deserves to be screened widely in Australia so it can be seen by all.

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