Germany (2020) Dir. Michael Venus
Dreams. We all have them and I don’t mean aspirations and goals but those existential experiences we have when we sleep that see us take on all manner of different forms and posit us in strange or familiar situations, good or bad, that are rooted in reality. Thankfully, they aren’t real as life sine some believe they are telling us something.
Marlene (Sandra Hüller), a single mother air hostess, suffers nightmares which leave her heavily traumatised featuring a hotel in which three suicides take place. After seeing the hotel in a magazine ad, Marlene pays a visit to get answers. Hotel Sonnenhügel, located in the remote town of Stainbach, is run by Otto (August Schmӧlzer) and his wife Lore (Marion Kracht).
That night, Marlene goes into a shock-induced coma following a harrowing nightmare and is taken to hospital. Her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) arrives, discovering her mother’s collection of drawings from her visions and checks into the hotel herself to find out what triggered Marlene’s stupor. Just like Marlene, Mona begins to have strange visions and is pulled into the strange world surrounding the hotel and the mystery of a woman named Trude.
Something about hotels in quiet areas seems to fascinate writers who want to play with our minds or scare the bejesus out of us and Sleep is the latest entry into this niche genre. First time director Michael Venus and co-writer Thomas Friedrich go for the first option with this reality bending head trip that features only a few unpleasant images that serve a narrative purpose rather than simply to shock.
On the surface, this might read as a low budget Teutonic take on Inception or other dream world films, but bubbling under is a scathing subtext about Germany’s shameful history and the burden felt by each subsequent generation. However, it is subtle and I must confess to not noticing it until I saw it mentioned in other reviews, after which some of what seemed like throwaway lines made sense.
Whether this gets through to everyone may or may not make all the difference in how one enjoys this film. It’s a slow burner for a 97-minute runtime in that it doesn’t reveal its hand until quite late, the build being multi-layered and obtuse. In the meantime, we like Mona, are forced to navigate corridors of ominous happenings with the hope of finding the right door to the exit fading with each turn of a corner.
Having assumed the mantle of protagonist from her mother, Mona now finds herself in a situation where every reality is not as real as it seems, waking up multiple times following a night out or a quick nap. Whatever has cursed the hotel is allowing Mona to see the suicides her mother envisioned – unless Mona and Marlene are cursed and the hotel is a McGuffin, it is hard to tell sometimes. Mona has two clues – Trude and a wooden boar sculptured by Otto – and nobody is willing to talk about either.
Usually the destination for the hero is to buckle under the pressure of their current odd surroundings until saved by an unlikely saviour or meet a grisly fate. Mona’s journey is a different but not entirely free from convention. For one thing she doesn’t go crazy but is caught in a few life and death moments – we know they are not real yet they have very real repercussions, which is where the plausibility of the story starts to get stretched and the Inception parallels become literal.
Creating a nightmare world anchored in fantasy or the supernatural is an easy way to spook the audience on a superficial level in the sense we can detach ourselves from it; creating one that looks and feels normal with actions that are well within the realms of possibility requires a certain amount of skill in keeping the illusion credible. Sleep pulls this off quite well for a first timer, walking a fine line between reality and fiction by dragging everyone into this dreamscape.
Alas, stories of this nature require a satisfying resolve and the cause of all the drama revealed with some degree of clarity. The script doesn’t quite achieve this, or if it did I missed something which is highly likely. Discerning Trude’s relevance to the story is obviously connected to the aforementioned historical allegory, but nothing regarding the “why” and “how” it results in chaos is explained.
Inception isn’t the only cinematic reference viewers will notice, a single take tour of the empty hotel with Otto and Mona recalls The Shining, whilst the woods surrounding the area carry the same pervasive sense of evil as von Trier’s Anti-Christ. Cinematographer Marius Von Felbert frames each scene simply to match Venus’s unfussy direction, capturing the sparseness of the environment to avoid over-complication when the lines of lucidity are blurred.
Presented in a muted colour palette with the exception of one scene, a distinct European aesthetic permeates every frame, sparing us the hackneyed alternate reality of vividness and effect driven ostentation. This applies to the characters as well, never made up to any level of unrealistic glamour – for instance, Marlene’s tired, sombre face displays the toll the nightly hauntings have taken on her, whilst Otto and his male friends all look like they never heard of deodorant.
Gro Swantje Kohlhof may not be as well know as her fellow cast members but she takes top billing and proves she deserves this honour with this natural, ballsy, yet human role as Mona. The more familiar Sandra Hüller effectively bookends the film as Marlene but the terrifying veracity in portraying the trauma Marlene suffered is gut-wrenching in its rawness.
Quite often you’ll watch a film from a new director with a challenging premise and can easily tell if it is a case of ambition over ability. Venus narrowly avoids this with Sleep, despite a few narrative tangles and loose threads, boding well for a promising future.