"Sleeping Sickness" ("Schlafkrankheit"), plays at the UC Berkeley Pacific Film Archive on Friday

If it’s spring in the Bay Area, it’s time once again for the San Francisco International Film Festival. While the Festival proper commences with appropriate pomp and circumstance this coming Thursday at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, its East Bay offerings begin the following day, Friday, April 20th, with a pair of down-to-Earth Northern European character studies screening at Pacific Film Archive.

Up first, at 6:30 pm, is German writer-director Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness (Schlafkrankheit), winner of the Silver Bear at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Set in the West African republic of Cameroon, it’s an elliptical examination of the uneasy relationship between the First and Third Worlds, a film that doesn’t tip its hand until the very last frame — and arguably not even then.

Pierre Bokma stars as Ebbo Velten, a German doctor supervising an anti-sleeping sickness program funded by the World Health Organization. Ebbo’s Cameroon assignment is drawing to a close, and he’s scheduled to take the next plane home and return to his comfortable middle-class life with wife Vera (Jenny Schily) and daughter Helen (Maria Elise Miller).

Ebbo, however, is less than thrilled about the idea. The thought of handing over responsibilities to new program director Elia Todorov (Sava Lolov, also cast as a doctor in Cedric Kahn’s first-rate 2004 thriller Red Lights) is too much for him to bear, and when smarmy French businessman Gaspard (Hippolyte Girardot) tempts him with an offer to help manage his plantation, Ebbo makes his decision: he’ll stay in Cameroon a little longer and reunite with the family in Germany at an indeterminate future date.

Fast forward three years and Ebbo is still there, but the focus of the film has shifted. Now in the spotlight is Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Foly), a French doctor of African descent sent from Paris by WHO to write an assessment of their sleeping sickness program. Alex quickly learns that it’s been a great success, with patients thin on the ground and village surveys turning up nary a case of trypanosomiasis to treat. Unfortunately, he also discovers that Ebbo has been diverting funding to build a home and buy cars and other luxuries for his pregnant mistress and her family — a state of affairs unanticipated by the straitlaced Alex, who isn’t quite sure how to proceed.

Basko and Foly’s superb performances are the foundation stones upon which Sleeping Sickness’s Silver Bear was built. Basko’s Ebbo is an insufferable prick who bullies the locals mercilessly while endorsing deep cuts in their hospital budget; Foly’s Nzila is an in-too-deep greenhorn overwhelmed by everything he’s seeing. We naturally sympathize with poor Alex, whose eternally quizzical look reflects his inexperience, but he doesn’t stand a chance against the Colonel Kurtz-like Ebbo and the manipulative Gaspard — especially when they take him on a bizarre night-time hunting expedition.

Reliance on hippo metaphors

Enigmatic, mysterious, and deeply but subtly critical of First World free-market solutions to Third World problems, Sleeping Sickness features a welcome appearance by The Art of Noise’s 1983 hit Moments In Love during its credit crawl, as well as an unusual reliance on hippo metaphors. You can’t say that about too many films.

It’s followed at 8:30 pm by Oslo, August 31st, a day in the life of suicidal 34-year old drug addict Anders (Anders Danielson Lie). Directed by Joachim Trier, distantly related to Lars von Trier, this intimate and not at all exploitative tale of self-loathing offers fewer surprises than Sleeping Sickness, but is worth seeing for Lie’s impressively vulnerable performance. There’s little here you haven’t seen before, but it’s extremely well done, and also features its own blast of ‘80s music nostalgia — in this case, I’ve Been Loving You by Norwegian pop icons a-Ha.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...