SLEEP (2020) Reviews of German sleep demon horror – now with our review

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Sleep is a 2020 German horror film about a sleep demon that threatens the inhabitants of a village.

Directed by Michael Venus from a screenplay co-written with Thomas Friedrich, the movie stars Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Sandra Hüller, August Schmölzer and Marion Kracht.

The idyllic village of Stainbach is haunted by a mysterious demon. It turns out that the nightmares of Marlene (Sandra Hüller) are responsible for the dark events. She is driving some of the inhabitants of the village insane during her terrible dreams. When she discovers her nightmares are about a real place, she tracks down the village of Stainbach to get to the bottom of the mystery. There, she learns about the consequence of her dreams and suffers a nervous breakdown.

Soon after, she is admitted to a psychiatric ward. Her daughter, Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof), journeys to Stainbach to find out the reason for her mother’s breakdown and the demonic nightmares she suffered from. She comes into contact with the peculiar villagers and discovers the dark history hidden within the quiet village. Perhaps the nightmare isn’t the demon that threatens the town after all, but rather – the past…

The feature debut of German writer-director Michael Venus is certainly stylish and transfixing by turns, but be warned: much offscreen scholarship (home-video disc “extras”, for example) are a prerequisite for the average viewer to suss out what is really happening here. Which for genre viewers is problematic. Doing your homework scholarship was usually not an issue with your average Hammer horror, Roger Corman or Lucio Fulci.

Elements draw from much Teutonic folklore, psychology, the shadowy underpinnings of the uniquely German motion picture called a “Heimat” film (celebrating rural life) and one of the more esoteric and incomprehensible Brothers Grimm fairy tales – “Frau Trude”. And the Nazi war guilt, though you probably expected that.

Institutionalized Marlene ((Sandra Huller) suffers nightmares and visions revolving around a hotel/lodge in the German village Stainbach. Marlene ventures there, goes catatonic, and her sceptical adult daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) takes up residences in Stainbach to watch over her (which does not make a great lot of sense, healthcare-wise, but what does in these types of films?).

Mona’s own sudden bad dreams – animal-masked secret-society men right out of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (or an Edgar Wallace Krimi, take your choice), boars, bloody suicides, a nude debauch (or…maybe unclothed interpretive dance number mit latter-day Rhine maidens; hard to tell) – somehow connect to a lavish inn run by leading local citizen and aspiring-Fuhrer-type Otto (August Schmolzer). Otto must be tied in bed at night by his long-suffering wife, lest he commits murderous deeds whilst slumbering. Lots of buried secrets in Stainbach are tied to rampant sleep disorders.

Of issue here is that, as in the Nightmare on Elm Street series (the better ones), what you see may not be trusted. Is it a waking dream? A flashback? One key scene of ghostly possession is particularly disorienting, even as much as one appreciates the offbeat approach. And that’s not counting the everything-and-the-kitchen sink ingredients that go into this inchoate Black Forest stew of Germanic angst; it would not even surprise if a bit of Perry Rhodan SF and Karl May western did not find its way into the bratwurst before the fadeout.

Don’t expect many easy answers by tracking down and reading “Frau Trude,” by the way. The best that can be said about that is here is one fairy tale not likely to be turned into a bouncy musical cartoon by Disney/Pixar, indeed no.
Charles Cassady Jr, MOVIES and MANIA

Other reviews:
“Whoever else Michael Venus is, he’s someone who feels that too much of a good thing is a better thing: dreams, drugged schnapps, creepy pig-masked men in tuxedos, incubi, and revenge, revenge, revenge. That, it appears, is a dish best served with strobe lights flashing, meat tenderizer in hand, and a surprise knife to the neck.” 366 Weird Movies

Sleep is a complex beast which delves into folk horror and the demons of Germany’s past to create a starkly original art-house film. Michael Venus takes the audience to uncanny valley and into an existential nightmare. At times, it’s not easy to follow and it will require all your concentration to piece all the elements together.” Backstreet Mafia

“With haunting performances and a sense of warmth created by friendship over family, and the strength of allies that permeate time, space and planes of existence, Sleep is a stunning tale of inherited trauma manifesting as nightmares and the work one has to do to conquer what cannot be physically escaped.” CGM Backlot

“There’s a lot to digest here and at times it feels as if Venus has added more ingredients than he really needs, then taken a little too long to bring it to the boil. Nevertheless, it’s a stylish attempt to address issues that remain taboo for many Germans. It invites us all to look directly at what lies in the unconscious, to address it there before it takes physical form.” Eye for Film

“I liked Sleep quite a lot, it wouldn’t be truthful to say I was hooked right away but even in the first act I was appreciative of the style and direction of the film […] The small cast of characters have a lot going on, with the intentions of a few of the more key characters hidden from the viewer. Scenes play out rather confusingly later in the film, due to the motivations occurring off film, leading to some surreal moments.” The Rotting Zombie

“From its urgent, tense opening scenes to its disturbing and vivid conclusion, Sleep is a vital slice of Lynchian dream-horror […] Venus’s film plays with these liminal states of consciousness and is often visually arresting, with repeated, terrifying images of flaming destruction and people in pig masks.” Sight & Sound

“The inner machinations of it are topical, especially at this particular moment in time, but even putting all of the more fantastical elements aside, Venus’s story, which he co-wrote with Thomas Friedrich, is one rooted in female strength and perseverance […] And it’s to Venus’s, who’s making his feature debut, immense credit that the freakier stuff hits just as hard as the emotional payoff…” Wicked Horror

Schlaf premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival on 25th February 2020. It was released in Germany on 29th October 2020.

Sleep is now available to stream via the Arrow platform.

A limited-edition Blu-ray edition is released on January 24, 2022. High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation – Original DTS-MA 5.1 audio – Optional English subtitles – Audio commentary by film critic and historian Kim Newman & author Sean Hogan – A Strange Dark Magic, a visual essay by film scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas – Sleepwalking through National Trauma, a visual essay by film critic Anton Bitel – Dream & Folktale in Sleep, an interview with anthropologist, dream researcher, and filmmaker Louise S. Milne – Talking in their Sleep, director Michael Venus and star Gro Swantje Kohlhof in conversation – A Dream We Dream Together, a compilation of film festival introductions created during lockdown by director Michael Venus and the cast of Sleep – Making Dreams Come True, a glimpse behind the scenes of Sleep – Deleted Scenes, four deleted scenes – Marlene’s Sketches, explore the many obsessive dream journal sketches that are only glimpsed in the film, created by artist Christoph Vieweg, presented here in full – Trailer – Image Gallery – Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Oink Creative – Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Alison Peirse, an interview with director Michael Venus, and Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Frau Trude” – Double-sided fold-out poster featuring newly commissioned artwork by Oink Creative

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