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{Blu-ray Review} Frequent Nightmares: Sleep (2020)

“Do you ever wake up and your dream is still there?”

There will come a point in this review when I will have to get into some heavy spoilers. But that point is a ways off yet, and I’ll give you plenty of warning before we get there. So, for now, carry on.

I’ve had several friends and loved ones who have experienced sleep paralysis, night terrors, recurring nightmares, even dreams of places that they had never been that turned out to be real. So the premise of this odd, slow-burning German film was hauntingly familiar as it gradually unspooled. It would probably have been enough to make me track the movie down, had I ever so much as heard about it before Arrow released the Blu-ray.

An assured feature debut from director Michael Venus, Sleep is filled with eerie mountain towns and haunted by the legacy of a past both specific and national. Filled with not-particularly-overt fairytale imagery, it’s the kind of movie that makes much out of blurring the lines between dreams and the waking world, though what is really happening is seldom very deeply concealed, and never as confusing as I’ve seen several other reviewers make it out.

The back of the box compares the flick to Bava, Lynch, Kafka, and the Brothers Grimm – which sounds like both a mixed bag and a tall order, but gives you a pretty good idea of what you can expect. Both in its muted visuals and almost foot-dragging pace, it also reminded me of the works of Oz Perkins. However, while I’ve said several times that this film creeps along, it also never stops moving, with each new door that is opened expanding the picture so that it never feels like it is just spinning its wheels, padding out the run time.

Our story centers on Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof), a young woman whose mother drops into a sort of coma after visiting a town that she has repeatedly seen in her dreams. “She has frequent nightmares,” Mona tells her mother’s doctor, to which he replies, “Who doesn’t?”

Naturally, Mona goes to visit the place where her mother experienced some sort of unknown trauma that has rendered her catatonic and, by her simple presence, begins to unearth a past that obviously won’t stay buried. Along the way, we’re treated to several striking dream sequences, although these are generally refreshingly straightforward and rarely as surreal as they might have been in other hands.

There are few jump scares in Sleep – indeed, few scares at all, in the traditional sense – as the film trades, instead, in a suffocating sense of dread that closes over the audience even as it is closing around the characters.  The details are filled in via a steady drip of new information, rather than too many exposition dumps (though there is one or two before all is said and done), while the atmosphere is built with assured camera work and subdued nods to the flick’s horror film pedigree.

Unfortunately, I can’t go too much further without getting into those spoilers that I mentioned up above. So, if you’re sufficiently sold on Sleep and want to check it out cold, the Arrow Blu is predictably stacked and looks and sounds great. Stop reading now and come back, if you feel like it, once you’ve seen the movie.

*If you don’t fear spoilers, on the other hand, read on from here at your own risk.*

At the heart of Sleep are two interlocking generational traumas, both rising once again to the surface. One is the seed of your standard ghost story – a murder, covered up and used as the foundation upon which a town’s (relative) prosperity was built, coming back to make the people responsible pay. The other is something much, much bigger.

This is Germany, after all, and Germany has one particularly dark shadow haunting its past. The town fathers, who “made Stainbach what it is today,” were Nazis. And those who remain are using the town as a stepping stone to rebuild the strength of their party. At least, that’s their plan. Or it was, until they start killing themselves at the behest of Trude, the murdered woman who is haunting the film.

Courtesy of Arrow Video

For much of its running time, Sleep keeps this political undercurrent close to its vest. You may be able to detect it in the grandiose rhetoric of the villainous hotel owner, who asks Mona, “How can you make any progress if you keep dwelling on the past,” even while he is obsessed with the imaginary greatness of a past he never actually experienced.

But while you never see any swastikas or Nazi salutes, this national generational trauma is every bit as key to the narrative as any personal trauma inflicted upon any of the characters. In the interview with Michael Venus in the booklet that accompanies the Blu-ray, he discusses going to school in Weimar, with its complex mixture of histories and culture. “Weimar was not only a favorite city of many progressives,” he says, “it was also one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite cities. Progress, beauty, and the brutal backlash of it.”

That’s in the DNA of Sleep, as much as any nods to Kubrick or Bava, as much as any Grimm’s fairy tale. The “progress” that the hotelier speaks so highly of is really regression, a reaching backward toward something that never really existed at all. In the process, he comes to grips with the actual past, in the form of the murderous specter who reaches out through the dreams of her offspring.

Nor is the film’s pointed criticism of nationalistic fervor and blind ambition restricted to this specifically German shame. When Mona confronts the antagonist with a piece of information that she claims she got from the internet, his reply is quick and decisive: “Fake news.”