Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"One doesn't need to look far beyond the surface to understand that something is amiss." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

What would you do if you learned that the place you keep seeing in your nightmares is real? If your answer is that you would stay far away from it and try to avoid ever seeing or hearing its name again, you're probably not cut out for this film, nor for anything else on the Fantasia 2020 slate. Michael Venus has described his creation in opposition to the Heimatfilm yet it retains some quaint Germanic qualities, folkloric in style and, like many a Grimm tale, full of characters whose salvation or downfall is rooted in their curiosity.

It also follows in the tradition of Psycho and Lost Highway, switching heroines partway through. When Marlene (Sandra Hüller) is left severely traumatised by her visit to the mysterious Stainbach, her daughter, Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof), decides to investigate in turn, staying in the same Sonnenhugel Hotel, where she promptly experiences some of the same visions. Is there a reason for this? Yes and no. A complex mystery lies behind the two women's experiences - and, perhaps, behind the suicides of others who stayed there in the past - but some of what we see resonates on a different level, Jungian in aspect. To escape the trap into which she has willingly wandered, Mona will need to attain an understanding of both these levels.

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Shot in a very plain style for much of its running time, with exteriors and some scenes in the hotel consciously aping tourist brochures, Sleep brings in splashes of vivid colour or unlikely imagery at irregular intervals, as if inviting the viewer to reach up toward wakefulness. Occasional non-sequiturs and bursts of surreal speech invite us to wonder if we're dreaming. One doesn't need to look far beyond the surface to understand that something is amiss. Behind their professional façade, the hotel owners bicker. Otto (August Schmolzer) has big ambitions. Lore (Marion Kracht) may know more than she feels able to say.

A weight of guilt hangs over everything. Mona feels guilty for not being able to do more to help her mother. She's eager to take on the burdens of others, perhaps still too young to be aware that she has limits. Meanwhile, Marius von Felbert's photography papers over an older Germany, but one can still see it through the gaps, ready to burst through one again. A wild boar stamps in the corridors, eyes glaring. There's more than one type of nightmare to be found among the gentle, wooded hills and timber-limned interiors.

There's a lot to digest here and at times it feels as if Venus has added more ingredients than he really needs, then taken a little too long to bring it to the boil. Nevertheless, it's a stylish attempt to address issues that remain taboo for many Germans. It invites us all to look directly at what lies in the unconscious, to address it there before it takes physical form.

Reviewed on: 22 Aug 2020
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Marlene, a woman plagued by horrific dreams, suffers a breakdown in a remote village. As her daughter Mona follows, she comes upon a well-kept family secret and an old curse that ultimately threatens her life - a never-ending nightmare.

Director: Michael Venus

Writer: Thomas Friedrich, Michael Venus

Starring: Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Sandra Hüller, August Schmölzer

Year: 2020

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: Germany


Fantasia 2020

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