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.