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by Wolfgang Fischer

grade: 7

In Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx, the waters in which the protagonist’s boat sails, just like the River Styx, are a scene of death but also of rebirth, and the whole becomes an important allegory of life and death, as well as a faithful portrayal of humanity.

A river called Styx

There is a saying in cinema that during the shooting of a film, there are three ‘cursed Bs’, that is, three elements – all with the initial B – that make the making of a feature film particularly difficult, since they are very complicated to manage. These elements are: babies, beasts and boats. Despite these difficulties, however, they have often been the protagonists of films of great artistic value. And yet, the risk is always there, together, of course, with the great fascination that each of them has always exerted on many film directors from the origins of cinema until today. If we consider, for example, a feature film such as Styx – co-produced by Austria and Germany, directed by Wolfgang Fischer and presented firstly at the 68th Berlin Film Festival, in the Panorama section (where it came second in the audience’s favourites) and then in the official selection at the Diagonale 2019 – we can see how two of the three elements play a central role in it.

First, then, there is a boat: the boat on which the protagonist Rike – a brilliant young doctor – decides to spend a solo holiday. It’s not easy to manage boats, that’ s well-known. And yet, over the years, some people have managed it quite well. Just think, for example, of Knife in the Water (1962), a true masterpiece and the first work by Roman Polanski, who, despite all the difficulties, managed to masterfully manage the limited space available. The same applies to Wolfgang Fischer, who, from the very first minutes after the protagonist’s departure, proved to be perfectly capable of handling the settings.

Secondly, unexpectedly, a child arrives. And it is not, in fact, just any child. The child who, during the story, crosses Rike’s path is a young orphan who has just lost his parents during the shipwreck of a migrant boat and who finds help on the protagonist’s boat. Another difficult element to manage, then. Especially if we think that the child speaks neither German nor English. So language becomes one of the central factors in the film, where, right from the beginning, silence reigns, but different communication levels gradually emerge.

And then there’ s water. Since time immemorial, water has been one of the most symbolic elements in literature, painting and, of course, film. Symbol of birth and – often – of rebirth, in our case – as the title, Styx, suggests – the waters in which the protagonist’s boat sails, just like the river Styx, are the scene of death (due to hatred among human beings and wars), but also, paradoxically, of rebirth (once immersed in the Styx, both protagonists – Rike and the child – will be changed and invulnerable). And so everything becomes an important allegory of life, death and, above all, humanity, by speaking a modern and, at the same time, universal language.

Wolfgang Fisher, on the other hand, has proved great maturity and knowledge in handling all these factors, avoiding dangerous rhetoric. The workhorse of a feature film like Styx, however, is the main character: the young Susanne Wolff, with an intense and magnetic face, but never over the top. The camera practically never moves away from her, the real fulcrum around which an entire film revolves. A particularly promising film and a pleasant surprise at the 68th Berlinale.

Original title: Styx
Directed by: Wolfgang Fischer
Country/year: Germany, Austria / 2018
Running time: 94’
Genre: drama
Cast: Susanne Wolff, Gedion Oduor Wekesa
Screenplay: Wolfgang Fischer, Ika Künzel
Cinematography: Benedict Neuenfels
Produced by: Schiwago Film

Info: Styx’s page on the website of the Berlinale