[Fantasia 2020] SLEEP Review: A Journey into the Nightmares of the Past

By: Emily von Seele

My first film of the Fantasia International Film Festival was a fascinating and understated horror film from Germany. Sleep is a film fueled by nightmares that break into the waking space and fuse themselves to the horrors of the real world. The film centers on Marlene (Sandra Huller) and her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof). Marlene is plagued by nightmares, often finding herself trapped between sleep and consciousness, gasping for breath. Mona tries to help her as much as she can, but her condition keeps worsening and doesn’t have an apparent source.

The focal point of Marlene’s dreams is a hotel in a remote village. Though she has never been there before, she somehow recognizes it and seems to know a bit about the people connected with it. She steals away one day to visit the hotel and try to satisfy her curiosity. After checking into her room, she has a horrible panic attack — almost as though she is having one of her horrific nightmares while wide awake. She is rushed to the local hospital, where Mona is summoned. When she arrives, she is told that Marlene is suffering from some sort of shock-induced paralysis and is unable to move or speak.

While she waits for her mother to recover, Mona begins trying to learn what she can about the hotel that has haunted her mother’s nightmares. What she discovers is a sordid history spanning decades and connecting her family to this village in a way she never expected.

The film is fascinating in the way it weaves together past and present. The horrors of Germany’s history cast a long shadow over the events of the story, as generations clash and struggle to come to terms with their country’s identity and place in the world.

Director Michael Venus employs a very minimalist approach to telling this story. The film is light on special effects, choosing instead to overlap the past and the present, the nightmares and the waking world, in a very dreamy manner. The movie is never fully surreal, but we float easily through the story as seemingly unconnected pieces fall together and the truth becomes something that Mona never imagined it could be.

Themes of guilt, revenge, and retribution are woven throughout and come together in a very satisfying way. The film struggles a bit in the beginning to lay all of its pieces on the table; it feels like we wander a bit until we reach the finale and everything gets pulled into place. It’s not necessarily seamless, but the themes are presented throughout the film and finally find themselves in the spotlight at just the right moment.

Sleep takes its audience on a journey — much like the one Mona embarks on. We never quite know what we are going to find or where we are headed, but we always know that we’re on the right track. Sometimes the truth is in front of you and you are unable to see it until the right moment.

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