By Christopher Bell | The Playlist October 8, 2011 at 2:10AM
Poor Ulrich Köhler. His first feature "Bungalow" was a quiet, very reserved tale about a young soldier going AWOL. Instead of finishing his service, he gives into lethargy, laying around and doing nothing while hoping the military doesn't catch up with him. Once he's introduced to his brother's sweetheart, he finally finds his purpose: get in her pants at all costs. No, it wasn't terribly ambitious, but it was a relatively solid debut and was interesting enough to make those who actually saw it keep an eye on the new German filmmaker. Four years passed and finally his sophomore picture "Windows On Monday" was unleashed with a whimper. This film -- about a wife rejecting her routine middle-class life and responsibilities -- saw the director slightly refining his style, but also failing to make a truly deep impression in its festival run. Neither of these films were bad (in fact, this writer quite liked 'Windows'), but their meandering nature and unattractive simplicity didn't do them any favors when pitted against things like "The Free Will" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" at Berlinale. The ante had to be upped. Sensing this, Köhler uprooted and went to Africa for his latest endeavor. Would a fresh landscape invigorate his sauntering aesthetic? Now that his German brethren are stirring conversation and acclaim with their "Dreileben" trilogy series, it's an even greater chance to finally catch the attention of festival goers. Unfortunately, "Sleeping Sickness" is a lot like his previous films, much to its own detriment.
One of the first moments we see of Dr. Ebbo Velten (Piette Bokma, 2003's "Interview") is in a family-vacation type scenario. He and his wife Vera (Jenny Schily) have a close, best-friend relationship while his teenage daughter (newcomer Maria Elise Miller) would typically rather be anywhere else. But they're not at some boring, annual getaway at a lake or something -- they're in Cameroon, a place the couple have worked to fight the epidemic of sleeping sickness for over 20 years. With the disease under control, they prepare to make a return to Europe and start leading normal lives -- all except for Ebbo, who can't seem to come to terms with leaving. At first it's subtle: he's kind of short when he talks to his wife about it, and when an acquaintance begs him to stay with a very enticing job offer, he doesn't exactly decline. Eventually his kin depart and he stays behind to tie up some loose ends -- but he seems even more settled in, suggesting something entirely different.
At this point, Köhler quickly pulls the rug out from under our feet. We're transported to France and introduced to Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly, "35 Shots of Rum"), a young African born-and-bred in the European republic. Almost immediately he's sent off to evaluate Dr. Velten's program, treating us to a number of tensely uncomfortable fish-out-of-water scenes. Once he finally catches the doctor, though, he uncovers more than just a poorly-run medical program: it appears that in the unsaid number of years we had been away from the German medico, he's impregnated a local and caused a lot of trouble for the rest of the villagers. Alex, already a stranger in the environment, has his hands full and not a clue in how to proceed.
Those familiar with "Heart of Darkness" or "Apocalypse Now" might find some similarities between our first lead, Dr. Ebbo Velten, and the ivory-collector/colonel-gone-mad Kurtz from the aforementioned pieces. But really, aside from the similar locale and the characters' unwillingness to leave, there's little connection between those works and "Sleeping Sickness" than some writers would have you believe. The filmmaker has gone on record before to cite Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a huge influence; his latest effort being the most obvious offshoot of the previous director's aesthetic and mindset. From camera set-ups to the unhurried pacing (not to mention the sudden shift in character perspective and the concentration on the medical profession), Köhler makes this admiration no secret. Thankfully it never feels like a crude, watered-down copy.
But the filmmaker misses a few key ingredients in the "Tropical Malady" auteur's work: magic, emotion and life. "Sleeping Sickness" never feels like it is a being of its own, always driving forward in a rather plain, too-direct way. There's no mystery; even the sudden time jump and change of the narrative focus has little impact on anything. In general, the film feels too calculated -- where Weerasethakul will plunge the viewer into a body of water and swim around with a catfish, exploiting the aural nature of the cinematic art, Köhler almost seems to reject his lush surroundings in favor of watching doctors converse and walk around.
And it could've worked well, but the transition of perspectives takes away time better spent on Ebbo's character. The addition of a new player gives an interesting angle on the country and also a different way to look at the older doctor, but by the time the two meet things are already coming to a close. We reunite with a broken man; not a messiah but a person that has saved countless lives but ruined all goodwill with a thoughtless screw. There's plenty of material there worth dwelling on, so why turn away? By the time we return it's too little too late.
There are some strong stand-alone sequences here and there, such as Alex forced into delivering a baby despite not really knowing how to do it. He receives instructions via cell phone, being nursed along step-by-step until the sight of blood makes him violently ill and forces him to step away. There's also an earlier altercation between Dr. Velten and his African doorman that injects the movie with some much-needed verve. Still, despite their strength, they don't amount to much in the long-run.
"Sleeping Sickness" shows a lot of promise, and the sad part is that this statement is starting to sound too familiar. For how long can a filmmaker be in this middle period before being given up on and written off? Failing to connect emotionally or spiritually, the movie approaches the material with some teeth, but the bite only leaves a hollow feeling. [C+]