A pair of women, presumably a mother and her daughter, are playing Jenga. The tower comes crashing down, so they start rebuilding. Suddenly it becomes clear that the middle of the new tower is missing, and the top blocks are just hovering in mid air. The older woman seems to be having some sort of vision, maybe a dream.
Cut to: visions of a red hotel sign against a dark background. The older woman, we learn she’s called Marlene, is having a nightmare. As she jerks in the bed, her daughter, Mona, gradually wakes her, telling her to breathe in, breathe out. Marlene explains that she has been having four separate dreams about the same hotel and they don’t sound very pleasant.
Marlene is an air stewardess which may be playing havoc with her circadian rhythms. She’s not been sleeping well and is having regular dreams about the same hotel. When she sees the same hotel in a magazine, she’s impelled to act. Telling Mona that her next job is a flight to Istanbul, she visits the hotel where you can check in but can never leave.
To cut a long story short, Marlene ends up in a psychiatric hospital while Mona chases up the same hotel. Cue a series of dreamlike images like a wild boar, a group of men in dark suits and pig masks and a gathering of far right characters in the ballroom. People move between dreams to reality, so we often see the same character in different scenes one after the other.
There is quite a lot of disturbing violence in the film – plenty of scenes of men choking women. And this would be shocking to anyone who was remotely emotionally engaged with what is happening. Unfortunately, that’s a Venn diagram that would have to exclude me. Of course the violence is appalling, but it feels to be something that has been made up by the director to shock, and nothing that is happening to real people.
A number of the reviews of Schlaf have compared it to Lost Highway and Inception, which I find apt, as I find both of these films intolerably self-indulgent. They seem to be made for a public which will congratulate themselves at recognising obscure allusions, but are too opaque to make any real sense and lack any coherent structure.
Apparently, Schlaf is about how dreams affect us and how the past is not really gone ((c) 10/10 User Review in IMDB), it’s about Germany’s dubious Nazi past, it’s about female self-empowerment and the meaning of motherhood. Or it could be about something else entirely. Because once you reach a certain level of abstraction, films can be about whatever you want them to be.
I have a certain problem with many films about dreams (and yes, this very much includes the hugely overrated Inception). Well, two problems really. First, if you get rid of all the rules and say anything is possible, you lose all dramatic tension. There’s a reason why stories ending “and then I woke up and it was all a dream” just don’t work once the writer and reader are older than – what? – 13?
My second problem with dream films is that that they generally turn into I-spy films, where the job of the audience is to work out exactly what is supposed to represent what. This may be ok for a certain sort of audience, but it feels like too much hard work to me. Look, I may be a bit tired after trying to fit in as many films as I can before the German cinemas shut down, but I just didn’t need all that work.
One thing that Schlaf is missing is enough Sandra Hüller – the main reason why I came along. Since breaking through with Toni Erdmann, she has been indefatigable. I reckon this must be the fifth film with her I’ve seen this year. But apart from a short set at the beginning of the film as Marlene, she tends to disappear from the rest of the film. It’s not that the other actors aren’t any good, but they’re just not Sandra Hüller.
I’m sure that there is an audience for this sort of thing – its spectacular and looks great. And there is a story somewhere in there if you’re prepared to put the work in. But tonight, I just wasn’t, and I know that the only loser from this is me, although I do still wonder whether at heart it’s not me, it’s the self-satisfied film makers. Let’s leave that open and hope that the cinemas open very soon.