Tuesday 16 April 2024



aka Schlaf
Directed by Michael Venus
Germany 2020
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some slight spoilers here.

Schlaf, or Sleep, was a blind buy for me. It’s a film I think I might have possibly gotten a chance to see at the cinema back in 2020 if it hadn’t been for the coronavirus. I don’t remember this one getting any kind of release in UK cinemas but the people at Arrow have released the movie on Blu Ray and, judging completely by the beautiful slipcase cover art and a nice, intriguing plot summary (such as it is... I’m not sure plot is the applicable word for this movie), I thought I’d take a punt on it. And I’m glad I did as I got two things from it. First up, I really liked it and will probably watch it again sometime in the hope of unearthing more clues as to what really is happening in the movie.

And, the other thing was, well, as is probably now apparent, I have no idea how the various puzzle pieces fit together into a cohesive whole. In fact, having slept on it overnight and realising the age of the hotel owners don’t necessarily match up to what I perceived to be the film’s timeline, it made even less sense on reflection.  But, then again, I’m not sure I’m supposed to be able to glean all of its answers anyway.

The story is about Marlene, played by Sandra Hüller and her daughter Mona, played by Gro Swantje Kohlhof and, Mona’s prime relationship to her mother is one of carer, as Marlene has strange psychological issues which are manifesting themselves to her every night in the form of dreams about a specific hotel and the three men she sees suicide there. In fact, she filled countless journals with sketches of the things she sees in this hotel every night. But then, she finds the hotel in a travel brochure and, without her daughter’s knowledge, goes to the village of Stainbach to stay in the hotel and try and get some answers. She knows she’s onto something because photos of the three men are in the lobby of the hotel. And then, in her dream like state overnight, something happens to her in her room and she’s taken to the local hospital in a stupor.

Mona moves herself into the hotel to be near her sick mother but, it isn’t long before she starts entering a world of dreams and also seeing visions of the three men who killed themselves in the distant past, as she walks around areas of the hotel. And that’s really all I want to say about the story itself... partially because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen the film and partially because anything else I say about it from hereon in would only be my personal interpretation, including the mental baggage I’ve brought to my viewing experience of the movie... and that may or may not turn out to be a helpful interpretation of events.

Right from the start of this beautiful looking movie, the director tries to wrong-foot the audience by taking us into perceived realities which turn out to be false. For instance, the film opens with mother and daughter playing Jenga but, on the second go in after the first topple, something very... well... un-Jenga like happens in the game and you realise you were just witnessing the mother’s dream. Or was it her dream? This is one of those movies where it’s very quickly established that any visual information you are given is not necessarily to be trusted so, any attempt to second guess where the story is going not only becomes impossible but it also becomes totally irrelevant.

There are elements brought in which weave a spell... the introduction of a group of people trying to bring back some form of Nazism (one assumes, there isn’t a swastika in sight) and also a witch who later becomes a succubus who may or may not be Mona’s grandmother (I’m plumping for, yes she is, despite the apparent age of the male hotel owner... I guess it could just about match up with things we are shown) and so there’s a persistent kind of folk horror element to the movie too, which is obviously set in a place which brings memories and dreams of the past washing up into the present... and a quite lethal succubus who lives on and can control people through those memories and visions, from what I could make out.

The film is beautifully shot and, as you might imagine, the cinematography helps set up a dream like atmosphere... as does the writing when it shows waking dream after waking dream with the dreamer unsure if they’ve actually awoken yet or trapped in another dream. Certainly, some characters are going on parallel adventures simultaneously in different perceived experiences, it seemed to me.

It would be a huge and obvious cliché to say that the film, with it’s woodland hotel setting and its vaguely surreal imagery and editing reminded me of Twin Peaks but, I think it has to be said that there’s a certain commonality between the two. And, no, I’m not saying this director is anything like David Lynch but there is a certain overlap, perhaps, in some of the themes and the way the more surrealistic imagery is introduced into the film... sometimes creeping up on the audience unexpectedly and, at other times, suddenly jumping out quite out of the blue with no subtlety whatsoever. I think fans of the former will probably enjoy this movie more, is perhaps the point I am trying to make here.

Coupled with a subtle score and some elegant mise en scene, there’s also a very strong cast of actors but a special shout out to Gro Swantje Kohlhof’s portrayal of Mona, who plays the character in a very downbeat, muffled kind of way for a lot of the film and so, in one scene where she takes on the personality of someone else (I don’t want to say too much here for fear of spoilers), you realise just how brilliant she is in this, due to the contrast of the sudden personality shift which is quite a moment to watch. But, yeah, everyone is good in this and everyone is so great at maintaining the idea that there is something amiss in the village of Stainbach.

And I am pleased I bought this one because Sleep, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is certainly a movie I would recommend. It does have various clues scattered throughout the film which do give a semblance of bits of a jigsaw I often found easy to put together... and sometimes not. I will go back and revisit these clues at some point although I suspect, just like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, the audience is not necessarily intended to join all the dots or, maybe a better analogy is build up a complete, correct picture from the puzzle pieces scattered throughout the film... a carved wooden boar, a ‘five way’ sex scene which may be a metaphor for the protagonist’s mother’s origin being enacted by her (or may not), spiked drinks for Nazis and so on.

I’ve not ploughed through the extras yet but, it’s Arrow and they’ve provided some nice stuff with this including a booklet of essays, a poster and, among the various disc extras, we get to sample the brilliance of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on one of the visual essays. So, yeah, there’s a lot going on with this release and, like I said, I'm glad I picked this one up while the limited edition version is still about. Check this one out for sure.

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