Sleep (Schlaf) (2020) at Fantasia

Sleep (Schlaf) is at Fantasia

“Don’t breathe, please,” says young adult Mona Engelhardt (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) to her single mother Marlene (Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann) at the beginning of Michael Venus’ feature debut Sleep (Schlaf), which he co-wrote with Thomas Friedrich. The reason for Mona’s plea is that they are playing Jenga together, and Mona is in the middle of a particularly precarious move that will in fact bring the whole edifice toppling down. Yet as Mona’s further moves will make the pile of bricks float impossibly in mid-air, it becomes clear that Marlene is in fact caught in one of the deep dreams that regularly plague her sleep – and that indeed cause her to lose her breath.

Marlene always dreams of the same place – a hotel where she has ‘seen’ three men kill themselves, and a fourth, stronger-willed man who resists the urge. When she happens to find in a brochure a real hotel that is an exact visual match for the one in her dream, Marlene heads there, and has an episode in one of its rooms that sends her into a coma-like stupor. As Mona comes looking for answers in the woodland village of Stainbach, and stays at the hotel run by Otto Fährmann (August Schmölzer) and his wife Lore (Marion Kracht), she too will start experiencing vivid dreams – even while awake – in which she sees graphic suicides, a wild sow, and a ghostly young woman named Trude (Agata Buzek). These visions, it will turn out, are part of a history – both her own and the hotel’s  –  that insists on claiming redress for past sins.

When Otto, still brandishing an axe that he was using in the garden, gives Mona a tour of the off-season hotel’s interiors, it is impossible not to think of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – as though Venus’ film, like Mike Flanagan’s similarly titled Doctor Sleep (2019), were retreading the same familiar old cinematic haunts. Sleep, however, is disinterring a far more localised past, with the spectre of Nazism raising its hands to get a stranglehold on the nation once more while the next generations risk sleepwalking through its pernicious resurgence. So this is a very German ghost story of guilt, complicity, trauma, restraint and revenge, in which buried secrets keep finding their surreal way to break through the surface of normality, and an unrestful revenant seeks new vehicles for vengeful acts (of conscience) against a past still unresolved. 

Here in the end, as in the opening scene, an elaborate succession of undermining moves made by women will bring the whole creaky structure (of Vaterland and errant patriarchy) tumbling down – and so Sleep proves equally effective as small-town gothic and subversive political allegory for a country whose very dreams are still haunted by suffocating history.

© Anton Bitel