Directed by: Michael Venus. Starring: Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Sandra Hüller, August Schmölzer. Runtime: 1h 42 min. Released: This film had its North American Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on August 20, 2020. It’s currently available to watch on demand.
Sleep is a horror film that constantly blurs dream and reality as Marlene (Sandra Hüller) is plagued by nightmares. When one is so frightening it puts her in a shock-induced paralysis, her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) investigates the hotel in the town of Steinbach where Marlene was staying. Marlene also claims that this hotel is the one from her dreams, as Mona tries to figure out what’s been causing her mom so many sleepless nights.
Like the Overlook Hotel feels like a character in The Shining, the hotel in Sleep feels like it has its own heartbeat at the centre of this story. Mona stays at this hotel in the off-season and the mystery all centres around it as there have been suicides here in the past. It’s explained by Otto (August Schmölzer) that a trio of mentors of this town committed suicide because the pressure of running the village. Otto and his wife Lore (Marion Kracht) seem to own just about everything in the village from the hotel to a nearby bar, to the grocery store run by their son Christoph (Max Hubacher).
The horror here has to do with how writers Thomas Friedrich and co-writer Michael Venus (who also directs) deal with the dreams. There are some dream sequences that are truly unsettling, and visions of the suicides in the hotel bring a supernatural mood. Director Michael Venus helms all of this well, often making us question if it’s dream or reality. The more bizarre the scene, the more likely it is just to be a dream, and the style in which these scenes are shot is great, and the cinematography by Marius von Felbert is beautiful.
The film feels closer to horror for the first 45 minutes but as Mona learns about the hotel’s history and her own history and gets to the bottom of this mystery, it leans more into drama and thriller. This isn’t a bad thing as it’s still strong, though the “basics” of the mystery and a big secret of the film feels somewhat predictable. About some of the weirder moments in the film, whenever someone would snort like a pig, they’d do it really creepily so that it’s haunting while also being hilarious. Those kind-of moments, where you’re frightened but also want to laugh, struck a balance that reminded me of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
I think Gro Swantje Kohlhof really elevates this film, though, with a strong emotional performance trying to find out what’s plaguing her mother. She creates a likable character with Mona and her performance is a big reason why I didn’t mind the film leaning more into drama because she’s powerful, especially in the emotional moments. Sandra Hüller as her mother Marlene is only in the film sporadically throughout because she’s in a hospital bed for most of the film, but her presence is always felt as the relationship drives the film.