The answers in Sleep seemingly lie in a peculiar hotel, cast deep into the woodlands of a remote village. The residents have checked-out, and the staff are as unhinged as the dreams which haunt Mona’s (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) nights, following her mother’s confinement to a hospital; plagued by nightmares and crippling mental effects. Retracing her family’s history and her mother’s last movements, gradually, Mona discovers that not even our dreams can concoct something more twisted than reality.
A cautious piece of advice – stick with it. At times, the opening of Sleep will perplex even seasoned fans of psychological horror with its near glacial pacing and refusal to rush into exposition or drama. Everything in Michael Venus’ film happens precisely where required and when necessary. Bold filmmaking, it makes for a tremendous payoff, but will potentially turn away general audiences.
Principally, the writing of Venus and Thomas Friedrich falls victim to its own intelligence, which leaps and bounds ahead as their direction scrambles to maintain pacing. Breathless, singular plot threads coil around themselves, and though they can be unravelled, it takes a moment to truly appreciate what is going on, slowing momentum but still sharpening intrigue. By the time the direction (almost) matches the quality of the writing, towards the film’s climax, Venus’ influence over the cast still surrenders to superior writing, affecting intensity somewhat as it takes a split second longer than it should for things to click and for performances to fall in line.
For what may appear as an emotionless performance at first gives way to a sombre take on the anxieties Mona suffers and exceptional stresses she undergoes. Kohlhof taps into a depth of psychological mechanics in her characterisation, which at first seems aloof, but gradually makes narrative sense. By the film’s final twenty minutes, the extraordinary range on display blows any naysayers out of their seats.
A trait echoed differently with the remainder of the cast, who dip between eccentric or blasé, helping blur the lines of reality and absurdist dream. In particular, Otto, the hotel owner who has ties with Mona’s family, but won’t reveal how. August Schmölzer is an imposing presence who can manifest both threat and comfort with alarming ease. Paired with Marion Kracht, as his wife Lore, the two share many of the film’s more substantial moments.
The transitions to and from these dream sequences are one of the key strengths Silke Olthoff utilises in maintaining focus and forgiving the initial jarring motions, slipping in and out of the subconscious. Often quick and occasionally brutal, the methods and the repercussions of sleeping in this film come with seamless edits, unnerving in their dread without resulting to cheap shots and jump scares.
Utilising spiral staircases, perception manipulation and low angles across the hotel, Marius von Felbert‘s cinematography ticks all the horror clichés, but with honest intentions. Standing in solidarity with the film’s soundtrack, the visuals are equally as quiet and unfiltered. Whiplash, though, is then a possibility with how suddenly the visual dynamics turn in the dream-sequences, where colour and contrast are injected into the scene for a delightfully unnerving switch from the humdrum.
Sleep is a film where viewers will figure out their enjoyment quickly, and there is little doubt this will limit its scope which in truth is a shame. One thing is for certain, those keen to discover the secrets of this unscrupulous hotel will find plenty reason to stay wide awake for the conclusion of a slow-burning film with plenty of intrigues, surprises, and an adept level of suspenseful filmmaking.
Screened as part of Fantasia Festival 2020