Sleeping Sickness

92 minutes

Berlin School director Ulrich Köhler transplants wholesale its clinical, formalist aesthetic to Africa in his third feature, an oblique meditation on displacement and identity that asks tough questions about the connections between Europe and Africa. Some have seem in it a sort of German answer to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's animist fables (as in the Thai director's work, Sleeping Sickness is neatly split in two halves), but it might be wiser to match Köhler's waking dream to the subterranean sensuality of Claire Denis. The first half follows German doctor Pierre Bokma's uneasy decision to leave his NGO work in Cameroon to return to his wife and daughter in a country he no longer truly recognises; the second picks up a couple of years later, as French son of African parents Jean-Christophe Folly visits the continent for the first time in order to evaluate the programme the doctor is still leading.
Inspired freely by his own experience as the son of NGO workers in Zaïre, Köhler underlines the alien, almost narcoleptic landscape as an acquired taste that gets under your skin and challenges your very notions of reality, identity and belonging. He isn't interested in painting Africa either as a playground for dissolute Europeans or a culture clash for second-generation migrants, though he fleetingly touches both; he's aiming at something far more mysterious and indescribable, perfectly summed up in a particularly appropriate title. The film moves forward as if in a dream, running either at half speed or full jet-lag; the medical programme at the centre of it all is aimed at eradicating sleeping sickness, and the irony is that those that attempt to understand it seem condemned to contracting it themselves. It's a seductive, intriguingly opaque puzzle well worth a second look.
© 2011 Jorge Mourinha. all rights reserved by the author

Starring Pierre Bokma, Jean-Christophe Folly, Jenny Schily, Hippolyte Girardot.
Directed and written by Ulrich Köhler; produced by Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Katrin Schlösser; director of photography (colour), Patrick Orth; production designer, Jochen Dehn; costume designer, Birgitt Kilian; film editors, Katharina Wartena, Eva Könnemann.
A Komplizen Film production, in co-production with Öfilm, Why Not Productions, IDTV Film, ZDF das kleine Fernsehspiel; in collaboration with ARTE; with support from Filmförderungsanstalt, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Deutscher Filmförderfonds, Filmförderung Hamburg-Schleswig-Holstein, Film Fonds Nederlands, Hessische Filmförderung, Centre National de la Cinématographie. (German distributor, Farbfilm Verleih. World sales, The Match Factory.)
Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2001, official competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 12th 2011. 


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