A creeping slow burn with a disturbing, ever-expanding mystery at its core, Sleep (2020) (AKA Schlaf)—the debut feature from director Michael Venus—delivers palpable dread with its quietly potent mix of psychological and supernatural horror. The film opens on a game of Jenga, where one wrong move can lead to total destruction. The players are Marlene (Sandra Hüller) and Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof), a mother-daughter pairing who’ve undergone a reversal of roles, as we see when Marlene holds Mona responsible for not picking up her medication and Mona later scolds Marlene for not making an appointment with her doctor. Marlene suffers from unexplainable night terrors, possibly exacerbated by her work as an attendant on red eye flights.

When Marlene discovers that the hotel that serves as the setting for her nightmares really exists and is located in the remote village of Stainbach, she visits it in an attempt to figure out why it has such a hold on her. Shortly after her arrival, she suffers an intense waking nightmare that puts her into a stupor state. Marlene is hospitalized, and Mona arrives at the hotel soon after to investigate and figure out what happened to her mother.

Sleep is a film steeped in the uncanny; stunning and sinister dream sequences abound, waking visions of death lie around many corners, and characters hint at hidden knowledge that they refuse to betray. Hotel operators Otto (August Schmölzer) and Lore (Marion Kracht) at first seem to cautiously welcome Mona, with Otto displaying overt friendliness and a willingness to help the young girl with her investigation. As time goes on, Lore becomes colder and Otto begins to reveal unsettling facts about the hotel’s grisly history. A mysterious blond woman (Agata Buzek) seems to stalk Mona in her dreams, and hotel maid Franzi (Martina Schöne-Radunski) slinks around the background paying keen attention to all goings-on. Attractive shopkeeper Christoph (Max Hubacher) and local free spirit Bille (Katharina Behrens) are the only members of this motley crew who seem unconnected to the nightmarish mystery, interested only in getting closer to the guarded Mona.

Through its theme of intergenerational trauma and its hereditary nature, the film touches on some explicitly German concerns, as well as run-of-the-mill toxic masculinity. Kohlhof and Hüller play their roles expertly; Hüller with an almost childlike vulnerability and Kohlhof with an aloof determination and near-constant seriousness, gesturing at the idea that she’s been long accustomed to caring for her emotionally fragile mother. Kracht and Schmölzer are convincing as the apparent villains of the piece, and Schöne-Radunski is a stand-out as the charismatic and eccentric Franzi. While the film maintains an eerie atmosphere throughout (with help from the excellent score by Sebastian Damerius and Johannes Lehniger), there are a few lighter moments as well, including a sweet blacklight karaoke performance by Hubacher.

Score: 9 out of 10 wooden sows.

This film was reviewed as part of our coverage of Fantasia International Film Festival 2020.