Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness plays on Saturday afternoon and next Wednesday evening at the 49th New York Film Festival. The film is currently without distribution.
Sleeping Sickness feels more like sketches for a painting than a finished work of art.
In the first half, a German doctor, Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), and his wife (Jenny Shily) are preparing to leave Cameroon, where they were stationed for years while he worked for Doctors Without Borders. They’re going back to Germany, but they’ve been in Africa so long they’re not sure it will still feel like home.
In the second, a French aid worker dispatched by the World Health Organization travels to the village where the doctor is holed up three years later. It seems he stayed behind after all, without his wife or their grown daughter, taking on an African family and launching a program to treat sleeping sickness. The Frenchman, Alex Nzila (Jean-Cristophe Folly), is there to observe and report on that program—an anemic enterprise centered in a scruffy open ward that houses more chickens than patients.
Writer/director Ulrich Köhler spent a chunk of his childhood in Zaire while his parents did aid work, his father as a doctor. His film is dotted with emotionally authentic moments, like the one where Velten’s wife lavishly (and slightly paternalistically) praises a dish made by her African cook, who smiles brightly while the wife is in the room, her expression turning far more complicated the moment the white woman leaves.
But the second half of the movie loses focus, giving us an episodic series of snapshots of Nzila’s Heart of Darkness-lite journey that occasionally becomes borderline surreal without ever quite feeling profound. In once scene, he wakes up in what appears to be a hospital with an IV in his arm. We have no idea where he is or why, and neither does he. It could be a deft metaphor for his trip to Cameroon, but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, so it winds up as a random snippet of experience, vivid enough in its own right but not really meaningful. It’s as if the filmmakers were sliding into African time along with Dr. Velten, inhabiting the moment so thoroughly they’ve half-forgotten what they were doing there.