Fantasia Review: Sleep (Schlaf)

A woman plagued by vivid dreams travels to a remote German village to try to solve the mystery inside her head. She suffers a medical episode and her daughter stays in the town to be near her mother. The daughter picks up where her mother left off and begins to unlock the secrets behind her mother’s dreams.

Coming from Germany to Canada, Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences Sleep. This is the feature-film debut of director Michael Venus, who co-wrote the film with Thomas Friedrich, also making his feature-film debut. Sleep begins with a tangle of different mysteries. The filmmakers take their time in unravelling these mysteries, building the tension and constant sense of dread throughout the film. It begins as the mother’s story, but when she is hospitalized the focus quickly shifts to the daughter. Despite that protagonist shift, it is still largely the mother’s story. Over time we slowly learn the answers behind the mother’s strange dreams and what brought her to the hotel in the remote village filled with tragedy.

Throughout Sleep, the idea of dreams and having trouble separating reality from what’s inside your head is a common theme. It’s a great way to make the audience second guess if what they are seeing is real while also including some nightmarish yet visually stunning scenes. Unfortunately, there are times when the plot seems to move a bit too slowly. This is likely at least in part due to a few subplots that are never fully explored. There are at least two subplots that are introduced later in the film that are never explained further nor do they reach any kind of resolution. It doesn’t necessarily take away from the primary plot, but it will likely leave at least a few viewers with lingering questions.

Each of the performances in Sleep are quite haunting. Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann, Requiem) plays the mother, Marlene. The most powerful aspect of Hüller’s portrayal of Marlene is her physical performance. During Marlene’s nightmare and mental episode, her body goes rigid and her eyes are clearly in another world. Hüller delivers a performance that is truly disturbing. Gro Swantje Kohlhof (Tatort, Ever After) plays Marlene’s daughter, Mona. It’s almost immediately established that Mona is more the parental figure than Marlene is. Kohlhof perfectly conveys that maternal instinct and Mona’s capability when it comes to taking care of business. August Schmölzer (Schindler’s List, Downfall) plays Otto, the owner of the hotel mother and daughter visit. Otto is a character who outwardly seems warm and helpful, but there is something sinister to him that makes it clear he can’t be trusted. Schmölzer does an amazing job of delivering that duality in his performance.

Aside from the interesting story, Sleep is simply beautiful to look at. A large part of that has to do with the setting, especially the hotel. It is large and industrial looking, but it’s barren. Through the entire film, the only guests we see are Marlene and then Mona. The architecture of the hotel and the rest of the town just feels slightly off throughout the entire film. It makes it incredibly eerie, especially with the dense surrounding forest. The cinematography also helps to create that unsettling feel along with sequences of nightmarish, psychedelic imagery and coloring. It all ties together to be both gorgeous and haunting.

Sleep is a waking nightmare that slowly unravels the mystery at its center. This is another Fantasia International Film Festival entry that delivers a powerful debut for first-time writers and directors. Venus and Friedrich clearly know how to tell a good mystery with supernatural elements. There are times when the film seems to stall, but it doesn’t take away from the film’s overall achievement. Sleep also includes strong performances and gorgeous visuals, making it an atmospheric, suspenseful film.


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