Psychological thriller “Sleep” explores German cultural identity with a fairy-tale feel. [Fantasia Film Festival]

Dreams help us process unspoken emotions and desires in contained, temporary environments. Those who dream can escape reality, explore a path unchosen, and tuck the experience away in a safe box. In Michael Venus’s feature-length debut, however, the borders between the dreamworld and reality blur and dissolve. A mother and daughter come face-to-face with a hidden traumatic past. To face it and break free will mean facing the realm of nightmare with unflinching resolve.

Marlene (Sandra Hüller; Toni Erdmann), a middle-aged woman with the perpetual look of being lost, suffers from night terrors so intense that she stops breathing in her sleep. In her dreams, she visits the interiors of a hotel she’s never seen before and witnesses scenes of violence, including the suicides of multiple men. Her journals are filled with hand drawn sketches of the things she remembers. She’s told her daughter, Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof; Nothing Bad Can Happen), about the nightmares and has promised to make an appointment with an ENT. But after recognizing the Sonnenhügel hotel in the idyllic town of Stainbach in a magazine advertisement as the place from her nightmares, she secretly books a trip to visit the place in search of answers. The neon letters towering over the entranceway confirm that she’s at the right place. Not long after she checks in, viewers partially witness a mysterious incident that puts Marlene into a fugue state at a local psychiatric hospital.

Mona receives a call from the hospital, and like her mother, she travels to Stainbach and the Sonnenhügel in hopes of discovering the cause of her mother’s stupor. “It would be really helpful to know what triggered the stupor,” says the psychiatrist. Mona books a room and meets the oh-so-nice owners, Otto and Lore (August Schmӧlzer and Marion Kracht, respectively), who seem, in all regards, to be concerned for her mother and eager to help in any way they can. But when Mona begins seeing strange visions on the hotel grounds and in the shadowy adjoining woods nearby, she begins to suspect that all is not as idyllic as it seems, as well as fear she is on the edge of a mental break similar to her mother.

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Gro Swantje Kohlhof as Mona in SLEEP.

Michael Venus spins this psychological thriller with a fairy-tale feel by weaving together threads from various German traditions. His director’s statement invokes Grimm’s fairy tales (specifically “Frau Trude”), legendary beings called Alps (who steal people’s breath while they sleep), and homeland horror, the director’s personal variation on the genre known as Heimatfilme. Created post-World War II, Heimatfilme were set in German rural villages and had a sentimental tone, with plots that ended when the good guy won. Themes dealt with displacement, German nationalism and identity, and progress vs. tradition. On the surface, Sleep could be a kissing cousin to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Those who enter the Sonnenhügel enter a world of repressed memories, of things people tried to erase, but can’t. The touched see visions of things from the past that just won’t stay buried. And the owner’s carefully arranged veneer of hospitality masks his true intentions. But the film’s German roots of folklore and nationalism mark Sleep as something closer to folk horror, minus the religion. For the true horror found inside the Sonnenhügel lies in man’s attempts to bury not just his shameful past, but the past of an entire people group.

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Sandra Hüller as Marlene and Gro Swantje Kohlhof as Mona in SLEEP.

Cinematographer Marius Von Felbert creates the bleak tone of the film through a muted color palette and wood textures. Every set dressing brings to mind a shadowy forest, using moss green, twilight blue, and an autumnal brown. The hotel owners keep a vignette of carved wood figurines on the dining room mantel, and these figurines appear as repeating motifs throughout the film, as well as emulate the wooded setting: tree, boar, girl, hunter, and stag. The lighting varies from dull in the real world and a sickly green glow during moments when the dream and real world blur.

While the visuals bring out the film’s folklore-inspired roots, sound designer Anders Wasserfall paints a soundscape that hints at the modernization German Heimatfilme protested against at the core. During tense moments, sounds similar to steam-powered industrial machines in motion ramp up the feelings of terror and bring to mind an unrelenting horror that contrasts with the shrieking, sudden noises that often populate contemporary American horror. These sounds invade the conscious most during the film’s most surreal moments. The sounds of gears turning and metallic friction hint at a world that equates technology, progress, and post-World War II consumerism with oncoming dread.

All of these factors combine to mark Sleep as visionary horror. Visionary horror lingers in the viewer’s mind long after the film ends because of the unique spell it casts. Michael Venus crafted this film by implementing culturally significant parts of Germany’s past, artistically composing his own personal comment about that past, and then making his mark through an unrelenting commitment to that vision. The tacked-on ending after the main resolution remains the only disappointing moment in an otherwise unforgettable cinematic experience.

Currently screening during the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival.

For more information, visit the Sleep festival website.

Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Categories: Reviews, streaming

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