Am I awake?
The nightmares are never-ending for Marlene (Sandra Hüller). One second she’s watching television with her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) and the next finds her screaming in the dark, desperate to grab hold of a bedside journal with which to draw what she’s seen. It’s a house she can’t recall visiting. It’s a suicide by hanging, a suicide by rifle, and a suicide by blade. Over and over the images flicker upon her eyelids because the drugs offer little reprieve. If not for leafing through an on-board magazine while working as a flight attendant, this torturous cycle may have continued repeating without end. But there on the page was that building—the deaths of three strangers behind its hotel’s windows. Maybe she could finally find answers. Any answers.
Be careful for what you wish for, though, because the secrets hidden within your subconscious are usually trapped there for a reason. As director Michael Venus and co-writer Thomas Friedrich reveal, the simple fact that you’re able to wake from their lucid grip means they might be too dangerous to let loose. So their strength builds. They work their way to the surface to compel you into following their lead. And they eventually bring you to a precipice for which the choice forward has no good answers. Either you give them the power to accomplish their goal or you struggle to win the fight of your life by suppressing the urge. Some would say Marlene was too weak to let the truth out. Others would call her brave.
The result comes in the form of the title: Schlaf [Sleep]. Well, not quite. Rather than slumber, Marlene finds herself in a near catatonic state. She’s neither sleeping nor awake. She merely lies there in her hospital bed without the ability to speak, move, or explain what happened. The answers have thus remained hidden (if she even discovered any before losing her mobility in the first place). The job to unearth them now falls to Mona by default. She looks to retrace her mother’s steps by visiting the hotel to figure out what’s happening. What she doesn’t expect, however, is that adopting Marlene’s mission also means adopting the tools that led her to this apparent road’s end. The nightmares Mona sought to comfort were now hers to bear.
More than at night, however, she also begins to notice things during the day. She starts to see ghosts—static memories made visible through the veil of time. Word of boars haunting the sleep of others parallel the carved wooden figurine Marlene left behind before her seizure as plastic smiles upon the building’s owners’ faces (August Schmölzer‘s Otto and Marion Kracht‘s Lore) can’t help but cause a discomforting feeling that they may know more than they’re letting on. The longer Mona stays, the more potent the darkness threatening to consume her becomes. And finally, in a glorious juxtaposition of black light pleasure against an anxiety-induced writhing of limbs atop a vacuumed abyss, the scrawled figure of a woman in Marlene’s drawings takes form. Trude (Agata Buzek) has returned.
I don’t want to say much more because the way in which the mysteries that connect everyone on-screen unfold is a big part of the film’s success. Hallucinations are revealed to be memories. The past folds in on the present. And what seemed like a straightforward glimpse into the intricacies of the human psyche soon expands outward to invite political unrest, murder, and revenge. Those we thought were victims become reintroduced as vessels while acts of complicity are replaced by vehement displays of opposition. Love becomes a weapon as well as a prison. That which some forgot comes flooding back until the artificial façade of amicability shatters to let pure evil take its place while Mona’s position as outsider shifts to render her a central figure for everything.
Venus does a wonderful job keeping us off-balance throughout the runtime, but especially as the end nears. What was an easily discernible line between reality and dream blurs until not even Mona can tell for certain which is which. He sets this overlap up by ratcheting up the suspense of earlier nightmares via fantasies within fantasies. Because if one jolt awake places you within a second hallucinatory state, who’s to say the next actually brings you back to the real world? For all we know, everything we’ve seen is a figment of someone’s imagination. Killing yourself is therefore the only way to test clarity. Maybe you gulp a huge breath of air. Or maybe you do nothing as your life ceases to be. Do you take the chance?
Sometimes it’s not a choice. Look at Marlene lying about where she’s going only to end up bedridden. Look at Mona commencing an investigation into the insular world of a tourist town on off-season where everyone has the time to keep her visit at the forefront of their minds. She’s forced to battle two separate wars in response: one pitting her against Otto’s welcoming if suspiciously charming demeanor (Schmölzer and Kracht are great at projecting the duplicity of their characters’ intentions and ambitions) and another against the specter that is Trude clawing her way out from the recesses of her mind. Kohlhof readies for both, carrying the uncertainty of where she fits in this puzzle firmly upon her shoulders to unearth the heavy skeletons buried in shallow graves.
courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival