Trans-global cross-currents and the continued practice of neo-colonialism are what’s at stake in Ulrich Köhler’s haunting, oneiric Sleeping Sickness, but the German director everywhere complicates the by-now familiar setup to reach beyond obvious conclusions about first-world involvement in sub-Saharan Africa. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of instances of finger-pointing at European do-gooders who don’t necessarily do much good. Indeed, the first third of the film focuses on world-weary Dr. Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), a grizzled whitey who’s set up a clinic in Cameroon to combat the movie’s eponymous disease. While Velten wards off the dissatisfaction of his wife and the derision of a daughter who derides him as a “missionary,” he treats his black subordinates with either loathsome condescension (he asks a cook if she used a “magic potion” to create a tasty dish) or outright hostility.
What prevents this first sequence from falling into a too-obvious critique of colonialist assumptions is that Köhler everywhere challenges us to find our bearings in the material. Offering little in the way of contextualizing background, at least initially, the director leaves viewers to fend for themselves, to chart out a stable position in an alien environment. This deliberate alienation mirrors the feeling of being at sea in a foreign country and prevents us from getting too comfortable with any conclusion we might draw about any character’s actions. Plus, as one of Dr. Velten’s colleagues puts it in regard to their mission, “We’re helping a little.”
The question of the efficacy of foreign aid is one immediately taken up by the film as soon as Velten sends his wife and daughter back west and the film jumps forward three years. Köhler cuts from impoverished Cameroon to a sleek European boardroom where a speaker decries the ability of direct aid to help African countries. He notes that most of the benefits of such programs accrue to the elites, creating further poverty, and preventing the establishment of democracy. “Only the market can solve Africa’s problems,” the speaker concludes, thus advocating the imposition of neo-liberal strictures on a section of the world ripe for exploitation. Between ineffective foreign aid and brutal economic colonialism, there’s little to choose.
But there’s at least one dissenter in the lecture hall, and the film introduces the character who becomes the principal figure for the final two-thirds of its running time shaking his head in disapproval as he listens to the proposal of the “market” solution. World Health Organization Dr. Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly) is still young and inexperienced enough to maintain a certain level of idealism about the possibility of bringing direct assistance to impoverished nations, but when he’s sent to Cameroon to evaluate Velten’s program, he finds his involvement with the third world to be considerably different than anticipated.
Just as the film’s first act could easily have degenerated into obvious anti-colonialist sentiment, so too are the final two-thirds ripe for even more obvious points about the first world’s well meaning naïveté when confronted with third-world reality. But again, Köhler probelmatizes the picture sufficiently, this time through the simple device of making the Western doctor black. An urbane Parisian, Dr. Nzila finds his authority as a WHO physician ignored by the locals who view him with derision as a fellow African who has no business telling them what to do, no matter how many times he tells them he was born in France.
Similarly, Dr. Nzila finds himself bewildered as he performs the task of evaluating what amounts to a rogue operation on the part of Dr. Velten, a man who is at first nowhere to be found. In the absence of the white doctor, the untrained Dr. Nzila is forced (in a haunting scene) to deliver a child via C-section while a nurse holds a cellphone to his ear so he can receive instructions from another doctor, while being left to ponder why there are so few patients involved in such a heavily funded project as Dr. Velten’s and to combat a general feeling of disorientation.
It’s this sense of dislocation that Köhler effectively channels via an increasingly dreamlike aesthetic that comes to a head in a final hunting sequence. As Drs. Nzila and Velten, along with another colleague and an African guide, wend their way through the forest, the constant shots of dimly lit foliage prevent the viewer from achieving any level of comfort, mirroring the younger doctor’s sense of dislocation. Gunshots ring out in the distance, while we stay with a visibly uncomfortable Alex, nestled amid the at once enveloping and menacing shrubbery. In this remarkable final sequence, Köhler offers up a despairing portrait of what foreign altruism too often amounts to: a madman shooting into the night and an impotent do-gooder left to fend for himself.