Sandra Huller stars in this challenging horror that tackles the ghosts of Germany’s past


Source: Berlinale

‘Sleep’ (Schlaf)

Dir: Michael Venus. Germany. 2020. 102 mins

A neverending tangle of family trauma unravels through an echo chamber of national shame in the ambitious psychological thriller Sleep. Michael Venus’ debut feature gathers inspiration from a swirl of influences that range from the fairytales of the brothers Grimm to the lost highways of a David Lynch nightmare. Viewers are required to work hard to piece together the bigger picture but Sleep will intrigue genre fans who favour the cerebral over the visceral.

Sleep is a challenging tale that constantly feels as it if it slipping from your grasp

Like Lynch, Venus is intent on looking beyond the white picket fence of normality to observe what lies beneath. The director describes Sleep as “an antithesis of the German Heimatfilm” and throughout there is a sense of the sinister lurking below the surface of the seemingly banal. A welcoming country hotel, a sleepy village and a picturesque Alpine woods are all filled with horror.

One central thread woven through Sleep is the blurred lines between reality and the subconscious. The possibility that dreams can reach out into the real world has shades of the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise. Flight attendant Marlene (Sandra Huller) is finding little comfort when she sleeps. One intense, recurring dream leaves her gasping for breathe and filling countless notebooks with vivid drawings. Her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) suggests that she seek professional help but Marlene takes direct action. Covering her tracks, she heads to the Sonnenhugel Hotel in Stainbach which is the place in her drawings and her dreams.

When Marlene is hospitalised in a trauma-induced stupor, Mona checks into the Hotel and is welcomed by avuncular owner Otto (August Schmolzer) and his wife Lore (Marion Kracht). The film seems to be straying into Stephen King territory with Mona the sole resident of an out-of-season hotel where she experiences visions of those who have died there. There is some kind of psychic bond between mother and daughter (and perhaps beyond) that allows Mona access to events in the past.

The Stephen King influence slips away as we learn more about Otto and his patriotic plans to restore the hotel to its former glory complete with hunting parties, spa treatments and traditional pursuits. In harking back to the past it feels as if Otto’s desire is to make Germany great again.

Venus does make some half-hearted attempts to satisfy genre expectations with shock moments designed to make the viewer jump, visions of bloody corpses and scenes in which characters seemingly fighting for their lives are revealed to be strangling themselves. He seems more engaged by the ideas layered through the story about the psychic connections between generations and the way everyone in the present is burdened by the guilt of the past. He also celebrates how it is utimately women who find the power to fight the sins of the father (and the fatherland).

Sleep is a challenging tale that constantly feels as it if it slipping from your grasp. It does ultimately add up and make sense. An impressive, restrained Gro Swantje Kohlhof carries the viewer through all the shifts in gear and lurches towards the unfathomable, including the recurring presence of a hefty wild boar. Her unflappable Mona becomes the embodiment of someone determined to keep calm and carry on as she ventures further down the rabbit hole of her family history.

Production company: Junafilm

International sales: Global Screen

Producer: Verena Grafe Hoft

Screenplay: Thomas Freidrich, Michael Venus

Editing: Silke Olthoff

Prod des: Lena Mundt

Cinematography: Marius von Felbert

Music: Johannes Lehninger, Sebastian Damerius

Main cast: Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Sandra Huller, August Schmolzer, Marion Kracht.