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Sleep Movie Review

Written by Ren Zelen

Released by Arrow Video

article-cover

Directed by Michael Venus
Written by Thomas Friedrich and Michael Venus
2020, 102 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
Released on 1st November 2021 (Arrow Video Streaming), 24th January 2022 (Blu-ray)

Starring:
Gro Swantje Kohlhof as Mona
Sandra Hüller as Marlene
August Schmölzer as Otto
Marion Kracht as Lore
Agata Buzek as Trude

Review:

Michael Venus’s impressive debut feature, Sleep, is an intriguing tale which, much like the elements of a dream, constantly feels as if it is slipping just out of reach.

Venus’s film reveals influences that range from the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm to the Lynchian nightmares that lie just beneath the surface of the normal. It uses its imagery in unsettling ways and raises ghosts of family trauma and those of a national past.

The film follows flight attendant Marlene (Sandra Huller) whose job sends her circadian rhythms out of whack - that’s her story anyway. What is actually disturbing her nights is the onslaught of terrible dreams which leave her screaming and gasping for breath. Secretly, she fills notebooks with drawings and disjointed words remembered from these dreams.

Her loving daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) insists on making an appointment for Marlene to get professional help. Marlene acquiesces but tells Mona that she must first take a flight to Istanbul which will take her away from home for a few days. This is a lie, instead she goes to the Sonnenhugel Hotel in Stainbach, a small village situated in picturesque woodlands, which she has discovered is the place that has been haunting her dreams.

sleep schlaf 01 sleep schlaf 02

Marlene finds the hotel disturbingly familiar and recognizes the men in the pictures of the three founders which hang in the lobby. She also knows that they all committed suicide. Alone in her room Marlene becomes increasingly frightened as she suffers the onset of a waking dream involving an enormous wild boar. The experience sends her into trauma-induced paralysis.

When daughter Mona gets a call from the hospital that is attending to her mother, she discovers her mother’s notebooks and travels to Stainbach herself. She checks into the same hotel and is welcomed by genial owner Otto (August Schmolzer) and his wife Lore (Marion Kracht).

Mona soon begins to experience the same dreams and visions that terrified her mother, indicating that there is some kind of psychic bond between mother and daughter. Once in the hotel, the place of strongest subconscious connection, Mona begins to have visions of events in the past.

Between visits to her cataleptic mother in hospital Mona encourages proprietor Otto to show her around the out-of-season hotel and to expound on his plans for renovations which he hopes will fulfil the vision of the original founders, of whom he is the last.

sleep schlaf 03 sleep schlaf 04

Otto’s self-assured demeanour comes under question however, when we discover that his wife Lore is obliged to strap him down in his bed each night. Behind their professional façade, the hotel owners have secrets. Otto has big ambitions, but Lore is silently unconvinced and uncomfortable. She is also desperate to reconnect with their estranged son Christoph (Max Hubacher).

Otto plans to make the hotel a centre for ‘traditional pursuits’ and ‘traditional values’ and is running for mayor of the local town in which he has gained supporters by force of his dominating personality. He arranges an evening reception at the hotel to introduce his campaign during which he makes a speech harking back to the past and outlining his plans ‘to make Germany great again’. Although it transpires that the younger generation have other ideas.

Young Mona is made of sterner stuff than her mother, and despite her disconcerting psychic breaks, lost hours and bizarre visions, she continues to pursue answers until she can collect all the pieces of a puzzle which ties herself and her mother to the hotel and reveals why three of the original founders committed suicide.

Her visions are a threat to Otto’s plans, and although she finds herself in great danger, she has a vision which reveals how one of the names in her mother’s scribbled notes ties everything together. The wraithlike blonde woman that has been appearing in her dreams is called Trude (Agata Buzek) and it is to her that all of the threads of the mystery connect.

sleep schlaf 05 sleep schlaf 06

Sleep is a wild fever dream centered in a real-life horror. Through a clever mix of abstract visuals and transitions that veer from dream to reality, Venus effectively manages to keep the viewer off-balance but still intrigued. It’s a masterful trick to pull off in a first feature. The line between reality and dream-state becomes increasingly blurred until neither the participants nor the viewer can be sure what they are seeing is real or visionary.

The film also benefits by excellent performances from Kohlhof, Hüller and August Schmölzer, and Marius von Felbert's cinematography allows the wooded hills and the neat, serviceable hotel to exude a quiet menace that seems ready to burst through its walls.

Sleep deals with multigenerational trauma - everyone in the present is burdened by the guilt of the past, but it also seems to indicate that it is women who must find the will and the courage to fight the sins of the father (and the fatherland).

With the rise of populism across the world Michael Venus’s film is a challenging examination of how quickly our history can overwhelm our present. It is a bold attempt to address issues that still remain upsetting for many Germans and for others. Sleep invites us to address what may still lie uncomfortably in the unconscious and to deal rationally with it, before it is again prodded into existence by those with malevolent intentions.

Grades:

Movie: 4 Star Rating Cover
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About The Author
Ren Zelen
Staff Reviewer - UK
REN ZELEN is a writer, movie critic, reviewer, academic editor, pop-culture junkie and Sandra Bullock lookalike. Her post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel ‘THE HATHOR DIARIES’ is available on Amazon in the UK and USA and worldwide.
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