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Interview: Ulrich Kohler • Director

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“The alienation of people living far from their roots”


- The German director explains why in Sleeping Sickness he decided to focus on the subject of European expatriates working in development aid in Africa.

Interview: Ulrich  Kohler  • Director

Flanked by his actors Hippolyte Girardot, Jean-Christophe Folly, Jenny Schily and Pierre Bokma, and producer Janine Jackowski, German filmmaker Ulrich Köhler spoke before the international press about Sleeping Sickness (Schlafkrankheit), which earned him the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlinale 2011.

Sleeping Sickness [+see also:
film review
film focus
interview: Ulrich Kohler
film profile
is a scathing criticism of development aid as practised in Africa. What exactly is your point of view on this subject?

Ulrich Köhler: I don’t necessarily agree with all my characters. I’m not a neo-liberal and I don’t think that the markets can solve all problems. But at the same time, we have to admit that development aid has never really been a success for various reasons.

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I’m not an economist, I have the good fortune of being just a film director and it’s not up to me to provide answers. But I think there’s a certain naivety (which I don’t share) in western views like those of Bono and Bob Geldof who believe that all Africa’s problems will be solved with lots of money. I’ve seen projects launched with immense enthusiasm and resources, but which fail within five years. In my position, I have the luxury of not being a politician and I can be ambivalent.

But on the other hand, neither should we be naive about the discourses of men like the one in my film, the anti-development aid discourses of theorists and economists from Africa who, in reality, are funded by free-market think-tanks from western countries.

You take illness as your starting point, but the film goes on to explore a whole host of subjects, in particular the complicated situation of western expatriates in Africa.
I think that the title and choice of illness are rather metaphorical. When I started to write the screenplay, the epidemic wasn’t yet the subject of my film. I was still looking for one. And then I met some specialists in this field who really caught my interest.

Having said that, despite the title, the main aim isn’t to talk about this illness. My subject is the alienation of people living far from their roots. I don’t think my protagonists are devoid of human emotions, but it’s very difficult and complex living in a society to which you will never really belong while at the same time, you get used to the status and autonomy you can enjoy there, which you would never have had to the same extent if you’d stayed back home in Germany to work and it’s difficult to give them up.

Are the story and characters based on autobiographical elements?
Yes, of course, because my parents worked in the humanitarian sector. I hope I have a complex view of the situation of expatriates in Africa. There are Europeans who live happily in Africa, but of course there are also people like Girardot’s character, who feel a bit lost and become alcoholics. The fate chosen for Gaspard also has a dramatic function, but I hope that my characters remain nuanced.

Were you influenced by certain literary works, particularly those of Joseph Conrad?
Yes of course, but I also watched lots of films and in my opinion, the reality is neither reflected in the romanticism of Out of Africa, nor the bleakness of films where you see people running around armed with machetes and killing people. In fact, Tayeb Salih, more than Conrad, gave me the courage to make the film, because naturally, I asked myself whether, as a European, I had the right to make a film about Africa from this Eurocentric perspective – that’s also why I wanted to mention black people who now live in the north, far from Africa.


international title: Sleeping Sickness
original title: Schlafkrankheit
country: Germany, France
sales agent: The Match Factory
year: 2011
directed by: Ulrich Köhler
screenplay: Ulrich Köhler
cast: Pierre Bokma, Jean-Christophe Folly, Hippolyte Girardot, Sava Lolov, Jenny Schily

main awards/selection

Berlinale 2011 Silver Bear for Best Director

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