“Brother of Sleep” is a triumph for director-lenser Joseph Vilsmaier (“Stalingrad”), who’s discovered an ideal outlet to combine his natural feeling for peasant life, grandiose photography, big feelings and backwoods mysticism. The breathtakingly shot tragic love story has massive potential in Germany (especially among female auds) and, unless torpedoed by a few structural booby traps, could turn into the long-sought-after international German-language hit to follow 1981’s “Das Boot.”
“Brother of Sleep” was a 1992 best-selling novel (subsequently published in the U.S.) by first-time Austrian writer Robert Schneider about a natural composing genius growing up in a hinterland mountain village in the middle of the last century with little more than the church organ to fulfill his musical needs.
Surrounded by jealousy, ignorance, backwardness, madness and mud, Elias (Andre Eisermann) is blessed — or cursed — with a bizarre, spiritual relationship to nature, which he experiences mainly via his ears.
But his personal relationships are not quite up to par, and he can’t explain to the woman he loves, Elsbeth (Dana Vavrova), that his idea of romance rests more on a spiritual than a physical level. That only confuses the simple peasant girl and drives her into the arms of another man, which eventually makes Elias suicidal.
Elias’ other relationship is to his best friend, Peter (Ben Becker), who is in love with Elias and seems to understand his friend’s stance but is nonetheless jealous of Elsbeth.
The attraction here is a kind of undying, nonphysical love that is doomed to failure in the tiny, isolated village of Eschberg. With the small burg, built entirely in the Alps by production designer Rolf Zehetbauer (“Das Boot”), Vilsmaier creates a compelling picture: The village and its population are fascinatingly authentic in their squalor, backwardness and poverty.
Much of the novel centers on inner monologue, which creates the film’s two difficulties. First, it is not a pic driven by dialogue: The characters never explain their actions. WhenPeter jealously tries to kill Elsbeth, burns down the village and then stands by as the villagers mistakenly lynch an outsider, we don’t see how he’s affected by the event, nor does it continue to figure in the plot.
The second booby trap is Vilsmaier’s use of the outdated — some would think corny — method of dreamlike “American montage” to reflect inner monologues. Yet, accompanied by Norbert J. Schneider and Hubert von Goisern’s strong, often discordant, score, these passages are ultimately convincing.
All performances are on the money. Vilsmaier’s wife and favorite female lead , Vavrova, plays a convincing peasant girl, as she has done before in “Herbstmilch.”
Becker, who may be the strongest of the trio, is excellent as the true but madly jealous friend with a secret crush on Elias. As Elias, Eisermann, who made a big splash as a seeming half-wit in the modestly successful costume flick “Kaspar Hauser” two years ago, projects an animal magnetism and slightly crazed unworldliness that’s well suited to his role.