Dreams have always been fodder for disturbing tales; entering them to chase valuable secrets, as a vessel for discovering old truths, and as the only place a monster can take your life. Sleep [Shlaf] combines all of those for a truly moving tale about the world that exists when our eyes are closed.
After her mother, Marlene (Sandra Hüller) enters a catatonic state as the result of haunting nightmares, Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) takes up residence in the hotel her mother flocked to while seeking answers to her dream clues. Mona is there to care for her nearby hospitalized mother but soon suspects the care might be better done by investigating the daily lives of the overly familiar hotel owners. As Mona digs deeper into the history of the hotel, her own dreams begin to blend with reality, forcing her to standoff against her two worlds in order to free her mother from the demons that visit in her haunting sleep.
This first feature for director Michael Venus (who co-wrote with Thomas Friedrich) tackles dreams in many ways we’ve seen before and ends up with something brand new. It’s an achievement for the freshman feature makers, and a solid case for letting them make more. This film is about mystery as much as it is horror, and the direction plays to that. Mona is beaten down, exhausted, and on her own, chasing a haunt that could very well rescue her from all of those things. Following her along for the ride while she pushes through her breaking points to stubbornly remain heroic, Sleep creates a new hero that’s more Nancy Thompson than she’d ever let on.
The dream sequences are subtle in a way that takes Christopher Nolan’s folding Parisian cityscape and replies to it with a creepy floating Jenga blocks. The dreams penetrate reality in gruesome flashbacks, spooky hints and violent self harm. Trude (Agata Buzek) is a nightmare that slaps Fred Krueger for calling himself a victim to justify his dirty deeds.
At the heart of this film about killer dreams is a story of womanhood, motherhood, and family. Three generations of women are tormented by an inherited trauma, something that hit twice as hard in a German film that has a woman attack present day Nazis. (They take down Nazi’s with German rave shit, it’s absolutely beautiful). The haunting dreams are helpful, the cries of a broken woman whose trauma recalled her descendants to the scene of a crime. Mona helps her mother because no one else can or will. In doing so, she discovers she has been taxed with taking on much more and is the next in line to resolve the trauma of her remaining family that was also left to fight alone.
It’s refreshing to see a women focused film for that gives them their own stories devoid of certain tropes. It is especially nice to see a woman’s vengeance not needing to be tested for validity by a rape or murder scene. From Mona’s bloodline, to the agony of Lore (Marion Kracht) and the coolness of Franzi (Martina Schöne-Radunski), Sleep is full up with vengeful women boasting individual motivations and pretty cool haircuts.
A strong element impossible to ignore is the use of sound. Every thump. Every scream. The sounds create the sense of unease while also blurring the lines between dream and reality using overlapping noises through scene changes.
With haunting performances, and a sense of warmth created by friendship over family, and the strength of allies that permeate time, space and planes of existence, Sleep is a stunning tale of inherited trauma manifesting as nightmares and the work one has to do to conquer what cannot be physically escaped.