[Fantasia Digital 2020 Review] SLEEP (SCHLAF)
Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival
We use sleep to process memories and thoughts that we keep locked up inside our hearts. Sometimes good. Sometimes bad. Sometimes they reveal long-forgotten truths, memories so deeply buried that the only way to unearth them is through our blood-ties. In Michael Venus’ SLEEP (Schlaf), we are taken through a visual mindfuck of a journey that examines the return of totalitarianism and its multi-generational impact on the most vulnerable. Through accessing the unconscious mind and deft blurring of reality and dreams, it is a dizzying confection we consume as we unravel the film’s mysteries.

SLEEP (Schlaf) is directed by Michael Venus, who co-wrote the script with Thomas Friedrich. The film stars Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Sandra Hüller, August Schmölzer, Marion Kracht, Max Hubacher, and Agata Buzek. In SLEEP (Schlaf), Marlene (Sandra Hüller) suffers a nervous breakdown after numerous vividly horrifying dreams continue to assault her. Trying to figure out what triggered the episode, 19-year-old Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) travels to the hotel her mother was found in. However, once she starts to experience the same dreams as her mother, Mona finds herself chasing after answers until a family curse makes itself known when confronted with the final piece of the puzzle. Vengeance will be had, but at what cost.

SLEEP (Schlaf) wastes no time tossing you right into the action. Venus’ transitions between reality and the world Marlene slips into in her sleep deprivation is stunning, yet offputting. From levitating tumbling blocks to slowly approaching ominous boars, we transition seamlessly from reality to dream. However, these dreams come at great cost, with death and generational blood proving to be the connecting threads.

This film is unsettling in both its visual splendor, score, and subject matter. While not yet revealed until much later on, at the heart of SLEEP (Schlaf), is an exploration of totalitarianism that is all too relevant in this modern era. Those deemed inferior are the ones up for slaughter, deemed little more than sows. It is bleak when needing to be bleak, but there is an element of hope interwoven in as well. However, as we reach the end scene, it becomes clear that trauma, more specifically generational trauma, is also a gleaming beacon to take in. Regardless of reparations given, that trauma will still linger.

Gro Swantje Kohlhof in SLEEP (Schlaf) l Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

The setting of SLEEP (Schlaf) in the isolated German village is utilized impressively. The Hotel featured in the dreams looms large, with its many corridors still yet to be unexplored. The cost of such a project lingers through the decades, with its founders bearing the burden of what they had to do to ensure its fruition. August Schmölzer’s Otto is a formidable foe, a man who presents such a wholesome exterior while true cruelty resides underneath. As the only founder left, it is up to him to make sure the Hotel birthed from the blood remains of the metaphorical sow persists. It is his legacy. This town, with its wooded forests and underlying secrets, kept tucked away from the outside world is his legacy.  And, as we watch Mona peel away the layers of his legacy’s secrets, we watch him unravel too.

If I am honest, I’d say the women are the main focal point of SLEEP (Schlaf). They are the ones making the decisions while the men remain stagnant in their comfort. It isn’t until Mona arrives that Otto and his son Christoph (Max Hubacher) are prompted to take action. Both are interested in Mona’s appearance in their lives. Otto’s interests are purely self-preservation. Christoph is fascinated by her. She is the flame and they are the moths. But none of this would have been possible without one particular woman. All of this connects to Agata Buzek’s Trude, the source of the dreams and the madness. It is through her actions that we are brought to the starting point of the film. And it is through her actions that we reach the conclusion of this particular chapter.

Michael Venus’ SLEEP (Schlaf) is a wild fever dream wrapped in an all-too-real nightmare. Through a beautiful mix of abstract, mindfuckery visuals, impeccable acting from the cast, and transitions back to reality, this film sits with you. It is a film about multigenerational trauma. A theme fitting in this day and age, especially when one takes the semi-recent history of Germany. And, as the credits pause to reveal that end-scene, we are reminded of how it lingers. It’s always ever-present. Heaving. Waiting. Much like a wild boar waiting to attack.

You can view SLEEP (Schlaf) on-demand during this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, which will be taking place online from August 20 through September 2, 2020.

Sarah Musnicky
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