The film tells the story of Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof), a young girl who serves as the carer for her psychologically scarred mother Marlene (Sandra Huller) who frequently suffers from paralysing yet indistinguishable nightmares. After Marlene’s condition sends her into a catatonic state, Mona puts it upon herself to uncover the truth behind her mothers dreams and exorcise the demons that are continually haunting her soul. Her investigations lead her to a remote village and its imposing hotel where her own deranged visions begin to collide with the increasingly disturbing reality of her situation, revealing a fascistic truth that runs deep through both the villages and Mona’s genetic past.
With its central setting of a rather sinister hotel, you would immediately presume that director Michael Venus has taken a leaf from the oversized book of Stephen King. But despite its setting, ‘Sleep’ owes more to the dream-like weirdness of Lynch or Bunuel than it does to ‘The Shining’. To say that the movie is unconventional would not only be simplifying the labyrinthine intricacies of the storytelling on show here but it was be doing the work of Venus and his co-writer Thomas Friedrich a great disservice. It is a deeply discomforting journey into the darkest recesses of the psyche that continuously blurs the lines between reality and imagination, bending time and space and leaving both its characters and its audience in a state of disorientating bewilderment. One scene will begin with a rather standard scene of conversation and general human interaction only to then transition to an unexpected moment of violence or ‘Under The Skin’-esque sexuality during which the cinematography and the sound design take full flight - turning the most mundane of activities into a cacophony of doomy underscoring and increasingly warped visuals.
It’s a very convincing simulacrum of the indiscernible way in which our night visions variously morph into all kinds of scenarios over the course of the sleep cycle, particularly during nightmares, and it is all credit to Venus as a filmmaker that he is able to depict this most indescribable of human experiences in a wholly relatable yet undeniably befuddling way. Like many art-house thrilllers, ‘Sleep’ is a film that demands your attention - asking many questions and providing very few solutions. At several times throughout, I had to pause the movie and quickly mentally re-calibrate where the story was heading and even in whose dreams it was taking place.
But, as is always the case, the horrors of the dreamworld are far outweighed by those of the physical world and ‘Sleep’ ventures down some very dark avenues that tap deep into the sins of Germany’s Nazi past. This extremism is exemplified in the character of Otto (August Schmolzer), the portly owner of the focal hotel who plans to turn his place of work into a resort for those want to revive the atavistic ways of old and make Germany Great Again. The film may have a Bavarian setting but its hard not to watch ‘Sleep’ and make comparisons with the modern MAGA crowd who decry the new ways of liberalism and equality and instead revel in the potential rebirth of segregation, dictatorship and hyperbolic bluster. It is here where the truly dark heart of the movie resides and it is in these moments that the plot becomes, for me, the most effective.
The performances throughout are top notch, particularly that of Gro Swantje Kohlhof who does a quite terrific job of navigating us through the convoluted narrative with skill and emotional dexterity. Her performance is strong yet suitably vulnerable, determined yet understandably afraid of dark path her character must inevitably take to save both her and her mothers sanity. Few actresses, especially those of her age, would be willing to undergo the psychological and physical demands needed here but Kohlhof proves herself to be a most fearless and impressive performer and I look forward to seeing where her career will take her in the future.
With strong supporting performances, particularly those of Sandra Huller and the aforementioned Schmolzer, a distinctive visual style and a number of scenes that will linger long in the memory, ‘Sleep’ is unlike any other viewing experience I’ve had in a while. It may lack the emotional coherency that I personally look for in cinema but as a cold, clinical unflinching gaze into the Stygian vortex of nightmares and the resilient power of far-right extremism, it is quite an artistic achievement.