Wolfgang Fischer's new film Styx tackles Europe's refugee crisis

In Wolfgang Fischer's new film, a woman sailing alone on the Mediterranean faces life-or-death decisions. Styx raises uncomfortable questions about personal responsibility and Europe's refugee crisis.

In Styx, a woman named Rike (played by Susanne Wolff) embarks on a solo sailing trip, planning to take her 11-meter-long boat from Gibraltar to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. She doesn't get very far out into the Mediterranean before she comes across a boat packed with refugees, in danger of sinking. She calls for help, but with the coast guard slow to arrive she is eventually forced to act.

Styx could hardly be more topical, referencing the dramatic situation playing out on a daily basis between Africa and Europe where many refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean. Wolfgang Fischer's shocking film, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, has the audience perched on the edge of their seats.

Read more: Mediterranean refugee rescues spark EU dispute 

DW: Rike dreams of sailing to paradise, but she lands in hell. Is that the essence of Styx: No one can be happy as long as others find misfortune?

Wolfgang Fischer: The film raises existential questions: Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who would we have to be — in this world? And what does it mean for us if we find ourselves in a dilemma like Rike's? The main character plans to sail to this island in the middle of the Atlantic. That's her personal dream. Then, she encounters people who don't have all the security systems our protagonist has on her sailing trip. These people have a different notion of paradise. It's important to show this contrast, with everything it entails.

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On board a refugee rescue ship

People could see your film as an appeal for empathy, an appeal to the world to help refugees. Was that your intention?

Most certainly! It's about creating empathy. What would we do if we found ourselves in such a situation? When we witness an accident on the highway, do we stop or do we pass by? Both are decisions! That's what happens at sea: How do we behave toward the refugees, and do we feel empathy for these people, or not at all? That's what the film is meant to find out.

Answers always have consequences…

Yes, they do. And that's what we will have to deal with.

One of the refugees wears a Cristiano Ronaldo T-shirt — an indicator that the world is moving closer together and everyone has the same rights?

That's how it should be, and it's fixed in the German constitution: 'Human dignity shall be inviolable.' We refer to that in the film. We live in a global world; we watch the same films, listen to the same music, root for the same football teams. That's why the boy is wearing a Ronaldo T-shirt.

The refugees are headed for Europe — is that Europe's demise?

Eighty-five percent of migration takes place within Africa. Only 15 percent want to go to Europe, and about 700,000 people are trapped in North Africa. The EU is home to 500 million people. That begs the question whether this is something we really can't afford.

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We want to seal ourselves off and close the sea routes. But people still flee, and currently, more people are dying in the desert than at sea. They die where no cameras are watching. It's a cynical attitude that cannot be accepted. The tendency to spend development aid budgets on keeping people out instead of on development is also terrible. We invest in border security, we form alliances with dubious regimes, we fund inhumane structures and deliberately abandon people. We are betraying our fundamental values.

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40 refugee camps, 23 countries: Human Flow

Ai Weiwei's documentary Human Flow presents the problem in a globalized context. The Chinese artist aims to draw attention to the refugees' plight, and generate compassion for them. His documentary premiered at the Venice Film Festival and is now released in Germany.

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Swiss perspective: The Boat is Full

The title of the film The Boat is Full (1980) has become idiomatic. In this movie, Swiss director Markus Imhoof depicted the fate of six people who had fled from the Nazi regime. At the time, films about refugees were typically set in the context of a historical conflict.

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African conflicts: Hotel Rwanda

Many European films featuring refugees describe the fate of people fleeing to Europe. In comparison, there are way less movies set in Africa, dealing with the causes of flight and migration. In Hotel Rwanda (2004), director Terry George from Northern Ireland focuses on an episode of the Rwandan genocide from 1994.

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Border conflicts: Riverbanks

Two years ago, Greek director Panos Karkanevatos shocked audiences with his film Riverbanks. Here, refugees taking off from Turkey with the aim of reaching Greece have to face several problems at once at the border river Evros. Smugglers exploit their situation, and the region has been mined during earlier conflicts between Turkey and Greece.

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Flight to England: Welcome

The French film Welcome (2009), by director Philippe Lioret, focuses on the fate of an Iraqi-Kurdish boy who wants to cross the Channel to Britain. Another character in the film is a French swimming teacher who supports the boy. It's a moving drama on humanity and friendship.

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The Kaurismäki touch: Le Havre

Like his colleague Philippe Lioret, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki tells the story of a refugee boy trying to get from France to Britain. In Le Havre (2001), Idrissa from Gabon makes the acquaintance of an older and unsuccessful writer. And like in Welcome, the film depicts how a relation develops between the man and the boy.

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Another Kaurismäki: The Other Side of Hope

In 2017, the Finnish director moved his audiences once again with a heartwarming film on the same topic. The Other Side of Hope premiered at the Berlinale. The protagonist is a Syrian refugee stranded in Helsinki. In scenes showing an encounter between Khaled and textile merchant Waldemar, the film showcases Kaurismäki's typical bizarre sense of humor.

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A comedy: Willkommen bei den Hartmanns

Last year, German director Simon Verhoeven daringly approached the difficult topic with a satirical touch. His comedy turned out to be a hit in the country dealing with a strong influx of refugees. Willkommen bei den Hartmanns (Welcome to the Hartmanns') tells the story of a German family which has welcomed a refugee in their home.

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When young and old meet: Nightshapes

Long before the current debates about the refugee crisis emerged, German director Andreas Dresen shot his film Nightshapes in 1999. It's all about a German businessman encountering a young refugee boy from Angola in Berlin. The latter immediately starts to cling to the old man, initiating an unusual friendship.

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From one conflict zone to the next: Dheepan

Two years ago, French director Jacques Audiard was awarded a Palme d'Or in Cannes for his refugee drama Dheepan. It tells the story of a family from Sri Lanka that has found a new home in France, in a rough Parisian suburban housing project. The refugees face another type of conflicts in their new home.

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Welcome to Europe: Mediterranea

The film Mediterranea from 2015 shows what two African refugees have to go through shortly after their arrival in Europe. American-Italian director Jonas Carpignano depicts the fate of two friends, Ayiva and Abas from Burkina Faso, who made it to southern Italy, where they face more hostility and violence.

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A disastrous reality: Fire at Sea

Last year, Italian director Gianfranco Rosi shocked viewers at the Berlinale with his documentary Fire at Sea. The winner of the Golden Bear depicted the fate of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe. Some of them die along the way. Although Ai Weiwei's Human Flow is more ambitious in its expanse, critics found this documentary more convincing.

So is Europe going to ruin, from a moral point of view?

If things continue in this vein, yes. We're losing sight of our humanitarian approach. Europe once stood together in solidarity. Solidarity is not the foundation when we sign deals with states ruled by tyrants, for instance Libya. These regimes do terrible things — and we support them?

You're saying the debate about the refugee issue is headed in the wrong direction. However, your film gives few answers but raises many questions.

Of course, it's difficult to give answers and advice. A film can't do justice to the issue. So we must raise questions and get every single viewer to ask, 'What do I do, how would I act?'