My fate is in your hands.
Is colonialism dead? It’s a question for which you would instantly answer “No” and yet still wonder if perhaps such a binary response is too simplistic. You would have to define colonialism and whether or not actual, recognized control of a land is the same as a more insidious relationship wherein you’re the puppet master of a “free” nation. Think missionary work or medical aid. Think money flowing in to improve conditions and introduce new ways of living yet unseen on its own. Let’s face the truth that wealth is a powerful drug. It will corrupt with impunity even the most altruistic person alive because it provides fuel for his charity. It allows him to become important. It supplies purpose beyond the task at hand and never yields.
This is an intriguing concept to dig into, one that I believe is central to Ulrich Köhler‘s Schlafkrankheit [Sleeping Sickness] and its depiction of a doctor (Pierre Bokma‘s Ebbo Velten) who falls prey to possibilities. He’s a German who was tasked five years previously to head up a two-year study meant to curb the spread of African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) in French-speaking Cameroon. It’s been a resounding success to the point that the hospital built with German financial aid only receives around ten patients a year. So the time has come to return home with his wife (Jenny Schily‘s Vera) in order to be closer to their disgruntled boarding school daughter (Maria Elise Miller‘s Helen). The project no longer needs his involvement, but he obviously still needs Africa.
We watch the last days of Ebbo’s stay as he says his goodbyes, wraps up work, and enjoys a rare stint with Helen. He and Vera will miss Cameroon’s beauty and sense of home. They have put down legitimate roots, but realize that returning to Europe will be vital for the sanity of the family. While his principled existence has bonded with nature and the people, however, the country itself has become dependent on the money his presence pumps in. This is why the hospital board seeks another extension on their grant despite the epidemic it funds being over. It’s why his friend Gaspard Signac (Hippolyte Girardot) tries to cajole him into staying to work on one of his lucrative ventures while basking in the land’s “exotic fruits.”
And just as we begin to sense whether or not Ebbo will actually leave, Köhler sends us forward in time by three years to meet another principled doctor in Parisian Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly). You can’t help but see parallels between the two: Velten’s refusal to bend rules to let a local police officer into his vehicle opposite Nzila’s by-the-books nature when dealing with European tourists who don’t think they need vaccines to travel to third world countries. It’s these same staunchly serious attitudes that makes them frugal and perhaps callous when it comes to the topic of money. Velten refuses to even consider a grant extension upon his tenure’s close and Nzila anticipates that locals will try to take advantage of him once he arrives in Cameroon.
Köhler is building all of these dynamics whether it’s the German turned African, the Parisian of African ancestry, or Cameroon seeking a European handout to continue prospering after survival has been achieved. He’s presenting the duality between assistance and destruction and how good intentions have a way of warping the status quo beyond recognition. There becomes a disconnect as those who think they know Africa better than the Africans find themselves invested in ill-conceived projects while assumptions are made about Cameroon courtesy of Nzila’s elitist academic pursuits and vice versa as a result of his skin color. Everyone refuses to acknowledge the chasm that exists between them and suddenly both charity and greed become synonymous under the umbrella of selfish desire. But is anything learned in the process?
My answer here is also “No.” It’s why I can’t wholeheartedly champion Sleeping Sickness despite my appreciation of its themes. Köhler asks so many questions that they feel more superficial than anything, excuses so his two narratives (Velten and Nzila) can come together for what amounts to a message that simplistically states how Africa will consume you. He wants to conjure more specificity to show how Africa offers European hubris what it needs to be consumed, but I’m not sure this hope is overt enough. It doesn’t help that Cameroon is rendered into a black hole for which Velten cannot escape. The fact he must (wittingly or not) self-sabotage to break free of the country’s hold on him makes it seem like he wishes he could leave.
So is Africa mystical in a way that corrupts? Is Köhler using Cameroon as a specter of revenge wherein the land now enslaves its European visitors like they did it when Germany set its roots in 1868 before France and Britain took over post-World War I? There’s this underlying sense of the surreal with talk of transformation, of humans becoming animals to find retribution against those who wronged them. Maybe the point isn’t that Africa is a black hole in general terms, but merely against people always looking to make it their own. Maybe I shouldn’t be looking at Velten as a weak man who succumbed to everything he fought against, but instead as the victim of forces beyond his control. Africa transforms him like Europe did it.
Unfortunately I can’t, though. Perhaps that says more about me than the movie, but I can’t bring myself to sympathize with these European strangers. I can’t buy into Gaspard’s speech to Nzila about how Velten is the best man Cameroon has ever known because they are still exploiting the land as much as they help it. Will Alex blow them in? He’s only there to evaluate Ebbo’s work and write a report about whether Germany should keep funding the project. He’s principled like Velten was, so maybe he’ll change too. But while this uncertainty should be about doing the “right thing,” the explicit fact that Nzila is a European who looks African proves too conveniently adversarial. Rather than complicate things with added political weight, it confuses them.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.