Schlaf (English title: Sleep). 2020.
Directed by Michael Venus. Screenplay by Venus & Thomas Friedrich.
Starring Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Sandra Hüller, August Schmölzer, Marion Kracht, Agata Buzek, & Max Hubacher.
Not Rated / 102 minutes
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS!
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled.
A director’s feature film debut is important for a number of reasons, one of which is that it’s an announcement of intent as an artist. That’s why a debut such as Sleep, from director Michael Venus, is a powerful first full-length film. It’s visually compelling. More importantly, it’s thematically intense and socially relevant today. A piece of art can be strong on its own without needing to touch on social/political topics. A piece of art can also transcend its medium when imbued with themes that strike a persuasive chord, whether playing off a viewer’s personal experiences and emotions or aiming more towards a collective zeitgeist.
Venus and co-writer Thomas Friedrich’s screenplay starts off with Marlene (Sandra Hüller), whose vivid nightmares and visions pull her to a quaint hotel in a rural German town called Stainbach. When she suffers a nervous breakdown in the hotel her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) comes to Stainbach. As Mona gets to know the residents, like the hotel’s owners Otto (August Schmölzer) and Lore (Marion Kracht), she also starts to unravel mysteries that point to why her mother went there in the first place, which ultimately prove to be dark and disturbing in origin.
Another film at Fantasia this year, Time of Moulting, similarly tackles German history, though moves in entirely its own direction, focusing more on individual effects of generational trauma. Sleep mixes history with surrealism, delving deeper into the collective effects of generational trauma through the post-WWII experiences of several individuals whose lives are mysteriously intertwined. Venus depicts the clash of past and present, just as much as modernity and tradition, and the journey Mona undertakes to figure out the secrets of her mother’s personal history is necessary in showing us how reckoning with a terrifying patriarchal past is an eternal project.
There’s an interesting parallel or duality in the story between Marlene’s personal history and the history of the town, Stainbach. Marlene is searching for a lost history— she was a stereotypical orphan left on a doorstep with no idea from where she came. She literally cannot remember the past. In parallel with Marlene is Stainbach as a collective. The town hasn’t forgotten its past; they know, they remember. They’ve simply chosen to repress it, particularly Otto. His encounter with Mona reveals a strategically repressed piece of the past that causes him to fall apart. Because the past lingers so heavily over the events in Sleep, the present is a truly liminal space: the film is always in the present and never genuinely out of the past. This is epitomised by Mona’s experience being tied up in the basement, simultaneously experiencing the past. This sequence of Mona caught between two time periods can also serve as a reminder that the past does, and will, repeat itself, so act accordingly.
Venus has described his feature debut as an “antithesis of the German Heimatfilm” which is curious because it connects the film’s themes to a sense of German history. The Heimatfilm was all about the Germanic homeland— or, Fatherland— the good triumphing over bad, and it showcased German rural spaces like the Alps and the Black Forest. The Heimatfilm exploded post-WWII as a method of focusing on a romanticised version of Germany, showing off places seemingly untouched by war. What Venus does by citing the Heimatfilm is really nail home how Sleep does exactly the opposite in its intent of never letting Germany’s Nazi past fade away completely, because to do so would be dishonest. If the Heimatfilm is a safely constructed revisionist fantasy then Sleep is a “homeland return” with warts and all, a surreal fantasy firmly rooted in hard realities.
“King Otto …
with his crown of blood, ash, and shit.”
The boar, or just the pig, pops up repeatedly. You could call it Uncanny, in the Freudian sense. Mona finds a carved pig in her room, similar to those she sees later which apparently Otto carves. Later we see Otto having boar heads mounted in the foyer. A flashback reveals a group of young men in Stainbach wearing boar masks at night. There’s a number of ways to read the boar symbolism. Anything that makes clear sense to the viewer is good enough when reacting to such a highly surreal film. Traditional spiritual symbolism related to a boar indicates the animal represents abundance, courage, and power, yet, similar to other dualities or parallels in the film, it also represents stubbornness, conflict, and disorder. We can read any of those attributes into the characters and plot.
But there’s a more significant, much more disturbing boar connection.
Modern Germany history, specifically WWII and the post-WWII period, looms like a hateful, sombre cloud over Venus and Friedrich’s the screenplay, from mentions of Nuremberg to the “Wirtschaftswunder,” or, in English, the German “economic miracle.” None of these are an accident. Just as the boar isn’t a randomly chosen animal to bear some of the film’s symbolism. Regardless if Venus meant it, his use of the boar links this surreal, allegorical tale directly to Nazi Germany. From 1943 to 1944, the aerial warfare branch of the Nazis’ military, the Luftwaffe, used a (not especially effective) counter-tactic against British night bombers called Wilde Sau— or, in English, Wild Boar. The division’s emblem was even a hellish-looking boar. In this context, the boars in Sleep are a harrowing image clearly close to Otto’s heart.
Another direct echo of Germany’s WWII history is embodied in Trude (Agata Buzek). Her blonde hair and blue eyes reflects the Nazi vision of a perfect Aryan. She goes on to mention her mother was Polish and her father was German. This mixed heritage coupled with her blonde hair-blue eyes look brings about echoes of Lebensborn, only more suggestive when the boar mask-wearing young men arrive at Trude’s house, urging her to leave town. Following the war and the crimes associated with Lebensborn, mothers involved were often abused, had their heads shaved, and usually got run out of town. Although Trude’s time is clearly not directly after WWII, given the age of the characters, she’s another aspect of the past and present overlapping. This is part of the perpetual repetition of horrific histories lying at the heart of Venus’s film.
One of the best aspects of Sleep is there’s hope in its heart, too. The Nazis, and those who view Germany as a patriarchal nation, referred to Germany as the Fatherland— a decidedly masculine perspective on nationhood, conjuring ideas of the heteronormative family and its place within nationalism. This film subverts that patriarchal view by depicting women as the ones capable of adequately dealing with history, confronting it head-on rather than covering it up or, much worse, celebrating it like Otto. Mona helps unlock the secrets of Stainbach. What we discover about Lore makes evident her resistance to the town’s legacy in spite of being intricately connected to the place. Best of all, the closing scene is Mona’s final recognition that moving on is possible, if only we realise the past will always haunt us, and we actively have to see it, to take responsibility for it. Our ugly historic past(s) needn’t be a burden. They should— must— always remain a reminder of why we can never go back.An oft-repeated William Faulkner quote, from his novel Requiem for a Nun, fits perfectly with Venus’s film: “The past is never dead. It‘s not even past.” Sleep deals with the return of the past, both on a personal level— depicted via Marlene and Otto— and also a national one, that of Germany itself. We can’t bury the past, the past is never dead like Faulkner wrote, it can never be gone because, for better or worse, it’s a piece of us. The past is only ever forgotten. And it will still eventually rear its head. Often times in the ugliest of ways.
Venus brings this story to life at an appropriate time, too.
We’re seeing white supremacists become bold, in America, Canada, and across the world. They’re unafraid to voice their hideous racist views in public. On some level, we’ve all failed. And so many people seem to think neo-Nazis are just popping up out of nowhere like plants, as if their hate occurs in a vacuum. None of this hatred is happening in a vacuum. Christoph (Max Hubacher) at one point tells his father Otto angrily to go ahead with his “Nuremberg Rally” being planned at the hotel. Evoking Nuremberg is a hugely important duality because of the infamous rally, held from 1923 to 1938, and because Nuremberg later became the site of the historical Nuremberg trials, a national and international reckoning. This key moment in the film addresses the duality of Germany as a country that immediately reckoned with its Nazi Party post-WWII, and one that can never truly escape the stain of Hitler’s legacy. Sleep rightly suggests Germany must be a nation perpetually conscious of its past, ever ready to scrub out any returning ugly remnants of that original offending stain whenever it should return.