Review: ‘Sleeper’

Powerful themes of betrayal, friendship, ambition and trust are handled in a low-key, anti-dramatic way in "Sleeper," a first feature by German writer-director Benjamin Heisenberg that plays like the calm before a storm that never arrives. Though well acted by simpatico thesps, there's simply too little going on here to reward any but patient festival audiences.

Powerful themes of betrayal, friendship, ambition and trust are handled in a low-key, anti-dramatic way in “Sleeper,” a first feature by German writer-director Benjamin Heisenberg that plays like the calm before a storm that never arrives. Though well acted by simpatico thesps, there’s simply too little going on here to reward any but patient festival audiences.

Setting is helmer Heisenberg’s alma mater city of Munich, where Johannes Merveldt (Bastian Trost) moves to work in the U. of Technology’s virology department under Prof. Behringer (Wolfgang Pregler). Johannes pals up with an Algerian in the same department, Farid Madani (Mehdi Nebbou), who’s working on the same project but from a different angle.

What Farid doesn’t know is that Johannes was approached earlier by the German secret service to report on Farid, who they suspect is a sleeper terrorist. The two different types — Farid is outgoing, Johannes less so — soon get to know a waitress, Beate (Austrian thesp Loretta Pflaum), who’s been recently bruised by some affair.

Very little happens for the first 40 minutes, though the first signs of strain between the three appear when Beate falls for Farid and Johannes gets jealous. She later has sex with Johannes, but the relationship doesn’t lead anywhere.

Later, Johannes is sidelined at work by Behringer, and, after Farid — who’s not as smart a research scientist as Johannes — doesn’t support him, Johannes betrays his friend to the secret service.

When a terrorist bomb explodes in the city, Farid comes under suspicion from the authorities, leaving Johannes in a quandary about what to do vis-a-vis his spying assignment.

Largely thanks to the actors — and especially Nebbou as the likable Farid — there’s an unsettling undercurrent to the two men’s friendship that’s initially intriguing. But Johannes’ motivations and background remain a mystery, further sapping the story of any real drama, especially given Heisenberg’s cool, detached direction. As the woman in the middle, Pflaum is OK as far as the script allows her.

Tech credits are immaculate in a clean, precise way, with occasional chamber scoring by Lorenz Dangel. Blowup from Super-16 is good.

Sleeper

Austria-Germany

Production

A coop99 filmproduktion (Austria)/Juicy Film (Germany) production, in association with ZDF, with participation of Arte, Munich Academy for Television & Film. (International sales: Austrian Film Commission, Vienna.) Produced by Barbara Albert, Martin Gschlacht, Jessica Hausner, Antonin Svoboda, Peter Heilrath. Executive producer, Bruno Wagner. Directed, written by Benjamin Heisenberg.

Crew

Camera (color, Super-16-to-35mm), Reinhold Vorschneider; editors, Stefan Stabenow, Karina Ressler; music, Lorenz Dangel; art director, Renate Schmaderer; costumes, Stephanie Riess; sound (Dolby SRD), William Franck, Stephan Michalik; casting, Markus Schleinzer. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 18, 2005. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Bastian Trost, Mehdi Nebbou, Loretta Pflaum, Gundi Ellert, Wolfgang Pregler.
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