Sleeping Sickness
December 6th, 2017

Sleeping Sickness [2011]

Please join us for a special screening of Ulrich Köhler’s Schlafkrankheit [Sleeping Sickness] [2011] at Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Arts Center.

  • Screening Date: Wednesday, December 6th, 2017 | 7:00pm
  • Venue: Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Arts Center
  • Specifications: 2011 / 91 minutes / German with English subtitles / Color
  • Director(s): Ulrich Köhler
  • Print: Supplied by Goethe Institut
  • Tickets: $7.00 General Admission / $5.00 for Squeaky Members

Event Sponsors:

Venue Information:

Market Arcade Complex (first floor) 617 Main Street, Buffalo, NY 14203

TrailerSynopsisDirector Bio / InterviewLinks

Courtesy of The Match Factory:

Ebbo and Vera Velten have been living in Africa for a long time. Ebbo is managing a sleeping sickness program. His work is fulfilling. In contrast, Vera feels increasingly uncomfortable with her life in the expat community of Yaoundé and the separation from her daughter Helen, 14, who is attending boarding school in Germany.

Ebbo has to give up his life in Africa or he loses the women he loves. But he has become a stranger to Europe. His fear of returning increases from day to day.

Years later. Alex Nzila, a young French doctor of Congolese origin, travels to Cameroon to evaluate a development project. He hasn’t been to Africa for a long time. But instead of finding new prospects, he encounters a destructive, lost man: like a phantom, Ebbo slips away from his evaluator.


  • Berlin International Film Festival – 2011 – Winner: Best Director (Silver Berlin Bear)
  • New York Film Festival – 2011

Bio courtesy of The Match Factory:

Ulrich Köhler was born 1969 in Marburg /Germany and lived in Zaire (now Dem. Rep. of Congo) with his family from 1974 to 1979. He studied Fine Arts in Quimper/France, Philosophy in Hamburg and later on Visual Communication at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg (Diploma 1998), where he made his first short films. His feature films Bungalow (2002) and Windows on Monday (2006) were successful at numerous festivals and won national and international awards, including the German Critics Award for Best First Feature in 2003.

Interview courtesy of press kit:

You tell the story of a man lost between two worlds. Was Ebbo’s character the starting point of the story?
I was interested in the world of the international aid workers in Africa. I asked myself how do people live in an environment in which they will always remain privileged outsiders. My parents were aid workers in Zaire. I grew up in a small village on a tributary of the Congo for a few years. My brother and I spent a lot of time on the water and very little time at school. My mother was our teacher.

Is that where the story about the hippo comes from?
Yes, there were hippos there and my father used to take us out in a small log boat to follow them. The villagers had warned us, but my father didn’t take it seriously. After we left the village, an American doctor was killed by one of the animals and the villagers believed that it was the hospital director, who had transformed himself into a hippo to kill her.

That sounds like an exciting childhood.
Which made our return to Germany even more difficult. We had lost our friends and were forced to give up a free life in nature for a small town in Hessen. It was also a moral shock: Even a nine-year-old could not overlook the unjust distribution of wealth between these two continents.

I pushed Africa far away and in a short time I forgot how to speak Kituba, the local dialect that had become my second mother tongue. My parents on the other hand really wanted to return. Later they worked in the hospital where we shot the film. If I hadn’t wanted to visit them, I would have probably never returned to Africa.

And now you’ve made a film there.
Yes and for a long time I couldn’t quite imagine it. Even though my first visit to Cameroon had been a powerful experience, it seemed presumptuous of me as a European to make a film about Africa.

I didn’t want to exploit it thematically. Perhaps it was the novel “Season of Migration to the North” by the Sudanese author Tayeb Salih that finally sparked my courage to examine my relationship to Africa. He tells the story of a Sudanese who returns to his country after having lived in England for many years only to discover that he has lost his homeland. For me, “Sleeping Sickness” is not a film about Africa; it’s a film about Europeans in Africa. It’s a film about Europe.

You begin the second part of your film with the lecture given by a critic of developmental aid. Do you share his views?
No. African experts who are advocating the abolition of international aid are popular in the western press. Their solutions are just as dubious to me as the paternalistic activism of Bono and Bob Geldof. On my travels I met many foreign experts that are in a schizophrenic situation: Although they feel that the actual work they do is very useful, they doubt the sense of developmental aid in general.

I don’t believe there are any simple answers and perhaps it’s not even our job to give answers. We ought to above all be more honest and examine which governments we work with and for what reasons. Rich countries can help improve the situation of the poor but that requires sacrifices we are not prepared to make. For example, most experts agree that agricultural subsidies in developed countries hinder development in Africa.

The second main character, Alex, gets quite upset about the neoliberal lecture. But on his first assignment as an evaluator in Africa he loses all illusions. At the end Alex is rather helpless…
I can highly identify with his character. I have often felt this way on my trips to Africa. The wish to do things right and have a natural relationship with the people there clashes with our fear of being cheated and exploited. The evaluator Alex Nzila is forced to realize that he cannot assess things from his European perspective.

Alex is in some way Ebbo’s counterpart. A man caught between two worlds. The conversation in the institute’s canteen shows that Europe is a difficult home for him.
Alex feels like an outsider, even when he counters his colleagues’ provocations with humor. Despite Sarkozy, French society is far more cosmopolitan than in Germany. In France you find people with African roots in all social classes and professions. But during the casting, I discovered that even there dark-skinned actors are often left to serve stereotypes of illegal immigrants or drug dealers. A character like Alex is rare.

Did you find your African actors in Cameroon?
The casting was quite complicated. Ulrike Müller and Kris de Bellair did a great job. The casting makes up 80% of the work of directing actors and that’s often underestimated. Little can go wrong for a director with a good script and the right cast. It’s what saved me on some days. All the African actors came from Cameroon where Kris de Bellair had searched for them. We had wanted to work with amateurs. Professional actors in Cameroon love illustrative acting and exaggerated gestures. Finally we also worked with a few professionals. We realized that they were able to adapt very well when we asked them to concentrate on the situation and go with it.

You have worked with Patrick Orth for quite a long time. Did you have a storyboard or did you decide from situation to situation?
The shooting conditions were tough and the preparation time too short. We made a lot of decisions on the day of shooting. I was busy working with the actors and so Patrick had to prepare a lot of things without me. There is tremendous trust between us. We had established a few basics. The night scenes had to be realistic. We wanted to work a lot with flashlights. It was also clear that some scenes would be filmed in several classical angles and not in sequence shots.

The dinner at the Chinese restaurant was the first time I ever used a shot-reverse shot. I am surprised how well the film works with these stylistic breaks.

The film begins with the transport of tropical wood on trucks. Nothing is in place. No one has a home. Even the traditional African clothes come from China. Only at the very end do you get the feeling that Ebbo is where he belongs. Who is the hippo?
Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to ask him. I don’t think he even noticed that he was being filmed.


  • A Voluntary Year (2019)
  • In My Room (2018)
  • Sleeping Sickness (2011)
  • Montag kommen die Fenster (2006)
  • Bungalow (2002)
  • Rakete (1999) (Short)
  • Palü (1998) (Short)
  • Feldstraße (1993) (Short)

Here is a curated selection of links shared on our Facebook page for additional insight/information:

  • 11/14/17 – “One of this year’s very best films, and one that directly addresses Europe’s fraught relationship with its colonial and post-colonial relationship with Africa…Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness not only focuses on two socio-politically entangled physicians — a German ‘gone native’ and an Congolese-Frenchman with no direct ties to the continent — involved in an African aid mission. It deals quite directly with the multiple levels of corruption and bureaucratic failure built into European NGOs and their African governance, a system of mutual exploitation and double-dealing.” Michael Sicinski at Cargolink

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