The titular illness of German pic “Sleeping Sickness” comes in two stages, with the latter, ultimately lethal stage typically associated with disorientation, headaches, nighttime insomnia and daytime drowsiness. Scribe-helmer Ulrich Koehler’s third feature is also divided in two parts, the second of which displays similar symptoms. Story of a successful Cameroon-based European doctor who might need looking after himself becomes a distant dual-character piece that mostly seems content to just observe the lived-in perfs and impressive location work. Beyond fests and home turf, pic will likely be quarantined.
Koehler’s previous two features, “Bungalow” and “Windows on Monday,” also combined a slightly metaphysical bent with listless bourgeois protags, though the foreign setting here gives the whole film a different, slightly more Conrad-like flavor.
First 35 minutes introduce Dutch-born doctor Ebbo (Pierre Bokma), who, according to fellow European-in-Africa Gaspard (Hippolyte Girardot), is one of the best at what he does. Together with his loving German wife (Jenny Schily), Ebbo has picked up their young teen daughter (Maria Elise Miller) from the airport. She’s come to visit them during their last weeks in Africa before they return to Europe.
Ebbo runs a Euro-funded program for sleeping sickness or African trypanosomiasis, though the cases have been so few lately that it’s become hard to justify the foreign aid being pumped into the program, and pragmatic Ebbo is the first to admit it. But nonetheless, the physician has a hard time leaving his beloved Africa behind for a continent he hasn’t seen in years.
After an enigmatic scene in which Ebbo waves goodbye to his wife and daughter at the airport, pic cuts to black before embarking on a different story. Initially set in Paris, this strand follows French-born doctor Alex (Jean-Christophe Folly), of Congolese extraction, who quits his job as a family physician to travel to Cameroon to evaluate Ebbo’s sleeping sickness program for the World Health Organization. Though he has African origins, the European-educated Alex has trouble adjusting. His character works as the mirror image of Ebbo, a white man almost fully assimilated, though Koehler never pushes this analogy far enough to really connect the men as opposites or amplify any underlying themes.
The doctors finally cross paths around the hour mark, and it becomes clear the now almost invisible Ebbo has stayed on in Africa alone, getting himself an African wife and in-laws while working for Gaspard. Final reels, set during a nighttime hunt, take the pic into territory that’s hard to read, leaving it up in the air whether Africa has turned Ebbo into a sick Kurtz-like figure or whether he’s become truly absorbed by his surroundings. Similarly, and as in his previous works, Koehler simply observes rather than explains what he shows (in this case, the divide between Africa and Europe, black and white, rich and poor, etc.).
Acting by Dutch veteran thesp Bokma (“Cloaca”) and young Folly (“35 Shots of Rum”) is naturalistic and convincing. Pic, shot on location, looks good, with Koehler’s regular d.p., Patrick Orth, delivering especially noteworthy work during the many nighttime sequences.