Review: A Morality Play At Sea in Styx

The idea behind the German production Styx is so deceptively simple, and therefore, so highly complex and loaded with relevant ideas, that it’s awe-inspiring how it all comes together. The lead character, Rieke (Susanne Wolff, who is beyond impressive here), is an EMT in Germany. We see her save a life after an auto accident in the first five minutes of the film, so we know she’s a capable professional who saves lives with precision. In her downtime, she decides to take her 30-foot sailboat for a voyage to the volcanic Ascension Island, where Darwin made some of his earliest discoveries. For the first half of this 90-minute movie, we just watch Rieke in almost total silence do her thing on this boat. Everything is in its place and she moves and makes adjustments to her journey, sometimes without looking. It’s instinct for her, and her expertise is nothing short of impressive. She even survives some pretty awful overnight weather while on her trip, and comes out the other side feeling pretty good about herself.

Styx Image courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center

It’s only then that the true nature of Styx makes itself clear. Upon emerging from below deck post-storm, Rieke spots a crippled fishing boat packed to overflowing with African refugees, whose screams are quite audible. She calls the Coast Guard, who say they are mounting a rescue mission and demand that she not attempt to save anyone, lest her presence cause a panic. She obeys but doesn’t leave the scene, which eventually leads to a few of the refugees jumping off of their vessel, attempting to swim to her. One young man (Gedion Oduor Wekesa) makes it to her in terrible shape, but eventually recovers enough to beg her to help the other he is traveling with.

From director Wolfgang Fischer, Styx is, pure and simple, a morality play. We’ve already established that Rieke is a life saver, so choosing not to help others in this situation is tearing her apart. But she also wants to obey the law, even if the law is established by those who value her life above the lives of these Africans. She befriends via radio someone on a nearby shipping vessel that could easily save these people, but he informs her that his company has a strict policy about such matters. There are no right or wrong answers, only gut instincts and ethics that are in constant battle with the ways of the world. We all know what the right thing to do is, so why is Rieke (and we, by extension) torn by this dilemma? It’s a thought-provoking, sometimes-thrilling work that encapsulates so much about how far astray we’ve gotten as a compassionate people. If you need that reminder, I highly recommend you seek this out.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.