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January 18, 2022



Michael Venus - 2020
Arrow Video BD Regions A/B

Sleep is a psychological horror film that ends with more questions than answers. The film begins with a flight attendant, Marlene, having recurring nightmares that take place in a hotel, with the death of three men. Marlene's daughter, Mona, wants her mother to get a psychological evaluation. Without explanation, Marlene shows up at the hotel of her nightmares, a large resort in a remote village. Marlene has a breakdown and is placed in a nearby hospital. Mona, using clues from a collection of notebooks with various drawings, goes to the Sunny Hill hotel in the village of Stainbach in search of answers. The nightmares of the mother become those of the daughter.

I am not sure if there is really such a thing as "dream logic". What bits I can recall from my own dream are a series of non sequiturs that are unified only as being evens from my point of view. Time and space are flexible with events that may or may not be simultaneous, and may or may not be imagined. Marlene's connection to the hotel may be part of suppressed or forgotten memories. In Sleep, those dreams and memories can be carried across generations. As the film progresses, various distinctions collapse so that the viewer is required to sort out the veracity of the images.

The title could well refer to sleep as a metaphor. The town of Steinbach is nondescript and presented as virtually depopulated. The forty year old hotel was built on the assumption that as part of Germany's economic success, the hotel would be a seasonal attraction for hunters. The town itself lacks any reason to be a destination, with the occasional car passing straight through on the main road. The financial failure of the hotel is just one reason why the three businessmen committed suicide inside the hotel. The current owner, Otto, thinks of himself as a pragmatist, but has convinced himself of bringing the hotel back to a glory it never experienced. Otto, as well as a group of the older townspeople, also have the shared dream of making Stainbach a home for neo-Nazis, although not named as such. From the aerial view, Stainbach and its people seem untouched by the physical damage of World War II. Although filmmaker Michael Venus does not mention it, and the connection may well be unintended, I was reminded of the novel by Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers. Broch's novel takes place in a fictionalized Germany between 1885 and World War I during various cultural and political shifts within the country. In discussing the novel, Stephen Spender notes that Broch's " . . . characters are sleepwalkers because their own lives are shaped by the forces of the nightmare reality in which they live."

The screenplay by Venus and Thomas Friedrich subverts conventions with the men proving to be ineffective whether as businessmen or as a potential hero. The casting is somewhat unusual with Sandra Huller, best known as the put upon daughter in Toni Erdmann as Marlene, mostly seen barely conscious in a hospital bed. Most of the film is carried by Gro Swantje Kohlhof, whose much shorter height and youthful appearance made me think she was still well into her teens and not mid-Twenties. Although there are clues regarding the time when certain events take place, they require paying attention to some small details.

As usual with Arrow, there is generosity with the supplements. Horror specialist Kim Newman and writer Sean Hogan have a casual commentary track primarily discussing the connection of Sleep with Grimm's fairy tales, Stanley Kubrick's film of The Shining and the work of David Lynch. The booklet notes by Allison Peirse explore the film through a Freudian perspective. The estimable Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides a visual essay. Quite fun is the online discussion of the film and the filmmaking process by Michael Venus and the very animated Gro Swantje Kohlhof. The one criticism I have is that Sleep may have benefitted from a supplement by someone who could more deeply explain aspects of German culture and history that are touched on in the film. Very much a plus, and something I would hope other home video labels adopt, is having English subtitles for EVERYTHING. Between my own hearing problems, ambient noise, and technical problems that are not always resolved by turning up the volume, I really appreciate that all the supplements came with subtitles which should be of benefit to many viewers. Thank you, Arrow Video!

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 18, 2022 05:33 AM