Trauma, as we all know, can be inherited in some form or another. Be it national, societal, or deeply personal, the adage “the sins of the father are visited on the son” remains as true today as ever. Because of this, and a growing acceptance and exploration of mental health, the horror genre has sought to tackle this hereditary grief in earnest over the past few years. And luckily for us viewers, this examination has given us some excellent and chilling movies. One fans simply mustn’t sleep on (har har) is the recent German movie Schlaf, or Sleep. The movie is available now from Arrow Video in one of the best single-title editions I’ve seen in a long time.
Director Michael Venus uses surrealist visuals and dream logic to peel back the layers of sins of a particular kind of German, all the way back to the Third Reich. Though that’s a lot to unpack for any one film, Venus does a masterful job of centering the events on one family and a little town full of secrets. Using the concept of dreams and nightmares allows him to utilize symbolism and allegory all the way through, but keep the emotions real and grounded. It’s a haunting film I haven’t been able to shake.
Marlene (Sandra Hüller), is a flight attendant who has horrifying recurring nightmares about a place she’s never been to. When she learns the place is actually real, she goes to check it out and suffers a breakdown. While she recuperates in a psychiatric ward, her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof), worried her mom’s psychological issues will appear in her, goes to the idyllic village of Stainbach to investigate. Why would this town have such a hold on Marlene?
Well, it turns out Stainbach, despite seeming like a nice vacation spot, has a lot of secrets. It seems the three most prominent leaders in town have recently all died by their own hand, glimpses of which Mona sees as she tries to get closer to the truth. Marlene’s nightmares begin to bleed into Mona’s waking life, and the elder generation sweep more and more of the sordid past under the rug. All the while, a mysterious blonde woman named Trude seems to have some hold over everyone, awake or asleep.
I don’t obviously want to give too much of the plot away, but I also kind of can’t? Sleep is the kind of movie that is more felt than understood. This is the feature debut for Michael Venus and it’s truly a staggering piece of work, visually and thematically. Co-written with first time screenwriter Thomas Friedrich, Sleep explores such heavy topics as fascism, misogyny, abuse, murder, and mental health. It’s not an easy watch on any level, but it’s explored with such a deft touch, and with such rich and well-rounded characters, that whether you fully grasp it all does not impact your enjoyment.
As though Arrow knew the movie had so much going on that it might need some examination, the Blu-ray edition comes complete with several outstanding extras to help you further appreciate Sleep. Filmmaker and author Sean Hogan and author and critic Kim Newman break down the film in a fascinating feature length audio commentary. Critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas takes a look at the fairy tale and dream imagery of the movie in a video essay. A second video essay from critic Anton Bitel explores the depiction of Germany’s national trauma explicit in the movie. And anthropologist, dream researcher, and filmmaker Louise S. Milne discusses the movie’s dreams and folklore in an lengthy interview. It’s really all you could possibly want to truly appreciate this complex and stirring film.
Sleep hits Blu-ray January 24 in North America, though you can stream it now on the Arrow Player app. Watch this movie, folks. It’s not your typical horror movie, in the best possible way.