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Fantasia 2020 Review: Sleep (Schlaf)

Updated: Aug 19

Michael Venus' visually arresting debut feature plays out as a deeply unsettling nightmare

Written by Katherine McLaughlin

In his smart and visually arresting debut feature, director and co-writer Michael Venus blurs the line between dreams and reality to drop a breadcrumb trail leading to the cause of a woman’s disturbed sleep patterns. Flight attendant and single mum, Marlene (Sandra Hüller) is plagued by recurring nightmares and loss of breath, the burden of which is taken on by her nineteen-year-old daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) who is regularly awoken by her mother’s blood-curdling screams. When Marlene randomly finds the location of her nightmares in a magazine – a hotel in Stainbach - she secretly slips away to investigate.


The screenplay co-written with Thomas Friedrich takes little time in transporting its characters away from their homelife and into a small, rural town where the power of the imposing hotel stretches throughout the entire community. After an outburst, Marlene is committed to a local institute with a case of shock-induced paralysis. A call from the hospital drags Mona to Stainbach where she is warmly welcomed by the owners of the sinister structure as their guest while she waits for her mother to recover. The film uses the friendly façade of the peaceful town, along with a dash of gallows humour, to build tension and create the creeping sensation that something evil is lurking just around the corner.


With the hotel at the centre of all the mystery it’s tempting to draw comparisons with the psychological horror experienced in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. The photographs on the wall hold dark secrets about the crooked foundations on which the male hoteliers built their business and the off-season resort provides an empty labyrinth for Mona to explore the past, and plunge into exquisitely crafted surreal fantasies.


This tightly scripted German chiller uses folklore and fairy-tale imagery in deeply unsettling ways to confront the ghosts of the past. Layered in its approach, the film has a strong hold on themes of repressed trauma, national shame and the threat of Nazism. Hope is placed in women and the younger generation to take courage and stand up against it. It is in Mona's hands then, that the responsibility lies to ask difficult questions and bring a halt to a vicious cycle of tragic violence.


Visit Fantasia Festival's website for tickets and more information.

Director: Michael Venus

Screenwriters: Thomas Friedrich, Michael Venus

Cast: Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Sandra Hüller, August Schmölzer

Running time: 102mins


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Through the Trees is a UK based, independent online magazine focused on horror, cult and the outré in all its forms. We cover Film, TV, Books and Games.