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Fantasia ’20 Review: “SLEEP” delivers haunting dreamscapes and well-crafted intrigue

Monday, August 17, 2020 | Fantasia International Film Festival, Review


Starring Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Sandra Hüller and August Schmölzer
Directed by Michael Venus
Written by Thomas Friedrich and Michael Venus
Global Screen

TWILIGHT ZONE creator Rod Serling introduced his famous anthology series by describing it as “a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity…the middle ground between light and shadow.” These words also encapsulate the potent, mystery-filled dreamscape portrayed in SLEEP (SCHLAF).

The first feature film by German writer/director Michael Venus and co-writer Thomas Friedrich, SLEEP (making its North American premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival) is a fascinating story centering on Marlene (Sandra Hüller) and her adult daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof). Plagued by intense recurring nightmares and associated physical maladies, Marlene struggles to make sense of it all while Mona willingly takes on the role of caregiver. Finally tracking down the real hotel in the German countryside that haunts her dreams, Marlene pays the establishment a visit. There, she experiences an episode so severe that she winds up hospitalized in a catatonic state.

Naturally coming to her mother’s aid, Mona struggles to determine what occurred while piecing together the clues left behind in her mother’s journals, notes and scribbles. As the mystery unfolds, Mona becomes acquainted with hotel owner Otto (August Schmölzer), his wife Lore (Marion Kracht), their son Christoph (Max Hubacher) and hotel employee Franzi (Martina Schöne-Radunski), each with their own agenda. Mona soon learns the terrifying truth lurking within the hotel’s walls; haunted by much more than unfortunate incidents, Mona goes on a journey to places she never imagined as she learns that lines can easily be blurred and nothing is quite what it seems.

A unique and engaging horror/mystery, SLEEP succeeds on multiple levels. The strong performances, led by Kohlhof and Schmölzer, accentuate the nuance and simmering horror lurking beneath the hotel’s well-manicured lawn. Marius von Felbert’s stunning and intelligently executed cinematography highlights the gorgeous natural surroundings while simultaneously heightening the contrast between actuality and the dream world. Underscoring these frequent and subtle shifts of reality within the story, the shot composition, color palette, sound design and even architecture help the audience track the waking nightmare that begins to threaten Mona.

While the mystery surrounding Mona and her mother are more than enough to create an engaging story, the strong themes utilized by Venus and Friedrich create a reinforced structural framework that adds a powerful potency to the overall film—the most overt and impactful being the united feminist thread and the hereditary nature of familial trauma. As Mona deciphers the haunted past plaguing her mother, we watch as it bleeds from one generation to another. Becoming what she fears most, Mona struggles and fights back against the darkness she knows all too well. She fights for her mother. She fights for herself. But she doesn’t do it alone. Throughout SLEEP’s runtime, there’s a strong through-line of women helping women, taking back control and standing “strong and dangerous” in the face of predatory men in power. Never distracting nor detracting from the narrative’s overall effectiveness, Mona’s evolving relationships with Lore, Franzi, Marlene and the stunning Trude (Agata Buzek) add a unique depth and refreshing viewpoint that beneficially separates SLEEP from the testosterone heavy crowd.

A truly remarkable debut by Venus and Friedrich, SLEEP quickly and clearly establishes them as filmmakers with talent and passion. Effectively conveying the layered experience that arises from living a dream and dreaming of reality, SLEEP is a beautifully haunting and complex look at what happens when the line dividing light and shadow blurs into a certifiable waking nightmare.