Director: Michael Venus
Notable Cast: Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Sandra Hüller, August Schmölzer, Marion Kracht, Agata Buzek, Max Hubacher, Martina Schöne-Radunski, Katherina Behrens
Also known as: Schlaf
In the last year or so, Arrow Video has been grabbing quite a few solid new films to release alongside their usual catalog of cult classics. One of which, The Stylist, ended up being one of the best horror films released last year and one that everyone should check out. Their track record has been strong enough though that going into a film blind, in this case, the German film Sleep was a fairly safe and confident bet.
Fortunately, the distribution label has yet to falter in this arena as Sleep is a fascinating film. From its nightmare-inducing imagery, its dream logic anxieties, and its core themes of multigenerational trauma cut with pitch-black comedic moments, Sleep might find mixed responses from its viewers. It’s a film that distinctly feels artfully European in its sensibilities but hardly alienates a more mainstream audience. Think of it as a slightly more user-friendly A24 flick and you’re on the right path.
In its own way, there is a modern folk horror element to Sleep that works on a surprising level, although elements of a possession film, murder mystery, and just a sprinkle of Stephen King-style storytelling are all thrown into the mix.
The story of Sleep is kicked off when Marlene (Hüller) expresses to her daughter, Mona (Kohlhof), about these recurring nightmares of a place she’s never been and a series of suicides that are happening to some of the men in the town. When she descends into a vegetative state after stumbling into the town from her dreams, Mona takes a trip to the village of these suicides and dreams and attempts to understand what happened to her mother.
Using its dream logic and a series of surrealistic imagery to spur the mystery, Sleep does an admirable job of the blend the various genre elements of its style and story. Strong performances, particularly from the mother and daughter character duo, ground the film for its audience even as it continually blurs lines between dream, reality, and memory. The performances are not always easy to watch, particularly as the story unfolds and the third act ramps up the uncomfortable truths of the town’s past, but it’s worth the experience for its thematic storytelling beats.
In its genre-bending, Sleep does manipulate its viewers in a variety of ways. Themes around generational trauma, the lingering effects of Nazi and nationalistic ideologies in small communities, and the feministic lens of folk horror all seethe beneath its rather straightforward King-esque plot. Director Michael Venus cuts through so much of the character beats for the small cast and tonality with a viciously offbeat dark humor that often snaps out of unexpected places. Through editing, line delivery, and key visual moments, Sleep will often slyly slide between horrific and humorous. It’s the most effective and distinctive reason to watch the film and it makes its layered storytelling stronger.
To partner with its themes and tonality, there are a handful of stark and bold visuals present in both its dream and reality sequences that director Venus uses to impressive effect. The use of its German forested landscape in unique lighting, pigs, wood carvings, and the features of the human body - notably the presence of a woman in the dreams played by Agata Buzek, Sleep is maximizing its budget to deliver some memorable moments and fans of dream and/or nightmare logic will appreciate what is being popped on the screen. They are not overbearing, like so many films trying to ape the tonality of Phantasm try to use anymore, but effectively placed within the story to strengthen the effect.
As by now, I’m sure you can aptly see that Sleep did a number on me in a variety of ways. It’s a film that lingers well beyond its run time and grew more powerful the longer that I, and I apologize for this phrase, slept on it. It’s an entertaining blend of horror genres at the moment, but it’s the depth of its commentaries and use of its imagery, tonality, and pitch-black humor that makes Sleep a standout modern horror release.