14th Aug2020

Fantasia 2020: ‘Sleep’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Sandra Hüller, Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Max Hubacher, August Schmölzer, Marion Kracht, Agata Buzek, Martina Schöne-Radunski, Katharina Behrens, Andreas Anke | Written by Michael Venus, Thomas Friedrich | Directed by Michael Venus

Tormented by vivid nightmares she believes are real, Marlene (Sandra Hüller) starts piecing together her oneiric visions. Assembling nightmarish sketches, maddening notes, and recollections gathered throughout the year, she makes her way to a remote hotel in the peaceful village of Stainbach. There, the pieces of the puzzle start falling into place, and she suffers a nervous breakdown. Worried about her mother’s condition, her 19-year-old daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) heads to the psychiatric ward to find her. Coming from the city, the small town’s atmosphere is immediately uncanny. At the hotel – around which everything seems to gravitate – the staff is friendly and helpful. But soon, a well-kept secret and an old curse are uncovered, which, if awakened, stand to make Mona and her mother’s life a never-ending nightmare…

From the very get-go, Sleep (aka Schlaf) has an air of unsettling calm about it. Even though their is absolutely nothing calm about the films itself! A literal visual nightmare wrote forth on the screen, director Michael Venus and co-writer Thomas Friedrich have crafted a film that recollects the work of David Lynch, in particular in its odd, sometimes jarring visuals and the entirely Twin Peaks-esque vibe; Stanley Kubrick’s isolated terror of The Shining, especially in the character of Otto (August Schmölzer) whose demeanour, at times, mirrors that of the disturbed Jack Torrance; and even Altered States, which is an obvious comparison to make given Sleep‘s penchant for playing with the idea of consciousness and the varying states thereof.

Interestingly, whilst some aspects of Sleep may reflect the work of other filmmakers and films, there’s something very German about the themes of Venus’ film… The very idea that history, in the case the history of those involved and of the hotel in which the film is set, can still resonate and have an impact upon people long-removed from that history. It’s subtle but they way in which Michael Venus and Thomas Friedrich make Sleep an allegory for Germany’s problems with its past is fascinating to watch.

It doesn’t hurt that visually Sleep is stunning. Cinematographer Marius Von Felbert and director Michael Venus have crafted some of the starkest, scariest, downright creepy visuals I’ve seen in some time – juxtaposing the barren landscapes of the hotel and its grounds with the clustered, busy nature of the human mind. The nightmare landscapes they craft are oh so worthy of the David Lynch comparisons. The way in which the film works with sound to is also a delight – the film will often present terrifying visions through sound first, showing us the fear in the characters faces before what they’re seeing… And the use of a pulsating beat on a number of occasions only adds to the fear factor of this film.

Beyond the pig-faced killers and the complete blurring of the line between reality and nightmare lies a film that touches on not only Germany’s troubles with its own past but with the rising xenophobia across the world and humanities increasing concerned that our lives are not our own – doing what horror does best, raising points about societal and political issues all the while telling a horrifying tale of terror.

**** 4/5

Sleep (aka Schlaf) screens at this years Fantasia Festival, which starts on August 20th 2020.


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