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NIFFF 2020

Review: Sleep

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- In Michael Venus’ feature debut, whatever you do, don’t… fall… asleep. And this time, Freddy Krueger has nothing to do with it

Review: Sleep
Sandra Hüller in Sleep

Making its way into the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival’s online edition following a showing in the Berlinale’s Perspectives on German Cinema section earlier this year, Michael VenusSleep [+see also:
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]
might suffer from a denouement that feels disappointing, but it boasts just enough oddness – and wild boars – to pique one’s interest as the story unfolds. No wonder – as proudly announced on the Swiss festival’s website, here is a filmmaker “brought up on Grimm fairy tales and enamoured with Mario Bava’s oeuvre”, which sounds about right. While not exactly a proper horror, as the film’s opening game of Jenga might be its scariest scene, Sleep rips right into the “cult of guilt” instead, the troubled past of the country that never went away, and who knew? It seems that some people would actually gladly welcome it back.

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Starting with flight attendant Marlene’s debilitating sleeping problems (Toni Erdmann [+see also:
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’s Sandra Hüller – intense and sporting Mia Farrow’s pixie crop, though quickly sidelined) getting worse and worse, ultimately forcing her to find the place she keeps seeing in her nightmares, it quickly switches to her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof), a no-nonsense kid clearly worried by her mum’s nocturnal struggles and her notebooks filled with increasingly odd scribbles. “You stop breathing when you sleep,” she says, but instead of supervising a recommended psychiatric evaluation, she soon has to hit the road, too, leading all the way to a weird hotel in a mountain village. This is run by the perpetually smiling Otto (August Schmölzer) and is a tad infamous thanks to a string of suicides that took place a while back. Which none of the locals seem to find particularly troubling.

While visually unremarkable, for most parts reminiscent of all those greyish TV shows that welcome the supernatural as well as sudden outbursts of violence, Venus’ film is undoubtedly entertaining – even with its convoluted what’s-real-and-what’s-not storyline and Mona’s frequent visions, as every corner here seems to harbour some poor paranormal occupant caught in the most unfortunate of all moments. It also serves as yet another reminder that genre can serve as a powerful ally when dealing with trauma tainting whole generations, or even suffered by the entire nation. But although its themes are as dark as it gets – with Polish actress Agata Buzek continuing her successful run of popping up in the most unexpected movies; see also the bodybuilding drama Pearl [+see also:
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and High Life [+see also:
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interview: Claire Denis
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Sleep is at its best when embracing (one assumes) all the silliness that goes hand in hand with the local touches, be it a “slaughter festival” or a powerful, emotional confrontation summed up by a brief: “Otto, go get the apple strudel.” Even Freddy Krueger would never have seen that one coming.

Sleep was produced by Verena Gräfe-Höft for Germany’s Junafilm and co-produced by Christian Cloos for ZDF – Das Kleine Fernsehspiel. Its world sales are handled by Global Screen.

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