Dir/scr: BenjaminHeisenberg. Austr-Ger. 2005.100mins.
The latest co-productioninvolving dynamic Austrian/German directors' collective Coop99 (Darwin'sNightmare, The Edukators), Sleeper is an austere,thought-provoking post-9/11 drama about a German scientist who allows himselfto be talked into spying on a North African colleague.
Perhaps a little too dourand drabbly-shot to reach much of an international audience outside offestivals, despite its topical terrorist theme, these two co-production territoriesshould generate respectable but not buoyant arthouse trade.
Elsewhere it may fall victimto its own greyness, its relentless hammering home of the moral desertificationof the world inhabited by its weak and troubled central character. It played inUn Certain Regard at Cannes.
The film's main theme is theway a culture of suspicion, deliberately fostered by the state, can persuade anapparently ethical man to do an unethical thing. In fact, it is preciselybecause he has the right motives, because he is "one of the good guys", thatyoung research scientist Johann Merveldt (Bastian Trost) is contacted by aGerman secret service agent who believes that his Algerian colleague, FaridMadani (Mehdi Nebbou, who looks like a Maghrebi Jeff Goldblum), may be involvedwith an Islamic terrorist group.
At first he refusesindignantly, but his attitude towards Farid begins to change. The uneasyfriendship between the two is complicated by the fact that they are bothworking on the same virology project at the University, and they are bothrivals for the love of Beate (Loretta Pflaum, who looks like a female KeanuReeves) - a waitress who Johann met first, but who ends up embarking on arelationship with Farid.
The tension behind the twomen's laddish camaraderie is well-conveyed - it comes out in the shoot-em-upcomputer games they play, in a go-kart race that gets serious, and indepartmental jousting over which of the two should be credited for the resultsof a research paper. Farid wins out almost every time and Johann finds that,against his better judgement, he has turned into an informer.
Last seen in Aimee AndJaguar, Bastian Trost turns in a nuanced performance as a man discoveringthat his convictions are not as solid as he had assumed, and lettingprofessional and emotional slights push him into a kind of self-wounding desireto embrace cowardice (the moral paralysis which he sinks into is well-conveyedin a scene where he betrays his friend by saying nothing).
Visually, the film shunsprettiness, filming lab interiors under a cold light and exteriors under greyMunich skies; even parks are de-romanticised by becoming the venues forJohann's first meeting with the secret services, and for his first realstand-off with Farid - an innocent frisbee game that almost degenerates into abrawl.
An edgy, occasionallyjarring modern classical soundtrack further ups the tension. But the scriptkeeps letting the tension drop just when it shouldn't - as, for example, in thescene of Johann's first proper secret service interrogation. And though thefilm's bleak ending is perfectly in keeping with the mood of the wholeexercise, it doesn't provide the narrative or emotional closure that we'relooking for.
Austrian Film Commission