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Director: Michael Venus


Starring: Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Sandra Hüller, August Schmölzer, Marion Kracht, Agata Buzek, Max Hubacher

Fantasia Festival 2020 Selection

Hailing from Germany, Sleep (or ‘Schlaf’ as it’s better known), is the feature film debut from Michael Venus and sees a woman plagued by her nightmares travelling to a remote hotel in Germany to attempt to unravel the mystery behind her sleepy visions. When that idea goes south, her daughter is pulled into the nightmare world in order to take the baton and save her mother and, ultimately, herself. You won’t find Freddy Krueger but you will find a story that deals with the idea of dream states and separating them from reality – what’s real and what in your head?

Sandra Hüller plays Marlene, the mother haunted by her dreams, and really provides the backbone to proceedings in an intense physical performance. Gro Swantje Kohlhof is her on-screen daughter, Mona, and is the driving force for the narrative – she’s quiet but determined, steel-willed in the face of the spiralling situation unfolding around her. Both provide compelling performances alongside August Schmölzer’s chameleon Otto, part-welcoming host, part-greed fuelled egomaniac who has a whiff of a former German leader during one speech he gives during the movie. In terms of performances, Sleep is extremely solid in that department. As for the story itself, it’s certainly intriguing but it is in no way straightforward. Venus weaves between reality and dreams constantly and, as the viewer, you’re being compelled to follow everything to ensure nothing passes you by. However, the opening half of the movie is ponderous and not entirely thrilling which makes the journey to the slightly bonkers finale more of a challenge. In setting up the scenarios, the characters and the locations, the pacing of Sleep becomes...sleepy in itself and, ultimately, not all that exciting. Add in the dark, grittier visuals that are employed and the minimalist dialogue and the movie can be less than engaging at times. When the mystery does start to unravel and additional, enigmatic characters show up to widen the scope of the movie, things start to get going slightly more and the clever tapestry begins to reveal itself. To heighten things further, Venus adds in some more traditional horror elements to appease fans of the genre but, whilst these are executed effectively, they do sit at odds with the overall tone of the movie at times. Within the mystery and horror, though, are subplots and stories that feel unfinished or unresolved which is frustrating. That said, there are some great sequences, especially one involving a breakdown at the dinner table and apple strudel.


Whilst the aesthetic is dark, the hotel location itself is interesting – it’s deserted as its off-season so there’s an eerie quiet around the place, it’s not entirely clean and something feels off the entire time the movie lingers there. It’s not quite The Overlook, but some nice camerawork and techniques help to create a near-psychedelic effect at times which complements the visual look to create a suitably unsettling vibe at times.


At times, Sleep is gripping and at others it falls flat and becomes almost uninteresting – however, when it works it’s extremely effective and Venus’ dive into separating dreams from reality (plus the physical and mental effects) is certainly ambitious. Sleep is a solid affair with an interesting premise but its lack of energy and sometimes muddled storytelling ultimately holds it back.

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August 14th 2020

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