Winter Sleepers
aka Winterschläfer
Winter Sleepers (feat. Daniel and Ferch) German language. Germany, 1997. Unrated. 122 minutes.

Cast: Ulrich Matthes, Marie-Lou Sellem, Floriane Daniel, Heino Ferch, Josef Bierbichler, Laura Maori Tonke, Sophia Dirscherl, Sebastian Schipper, Saskia Vester
Writers: Anne-Françoise Pyszora and Tom Tykwer, based on Pyszora's novel Expense of Spirit
Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer
Cinematographer: Frank Griebe
Producer: Stefan Arndt
Director: Tom Tykwer


Grade: A Review by Carlo Cavagna

I magine a vigorous, energetic telling of a psychological drama set in the dead of winter. Visualize icy stillness directed by a man who believes in color and motion. Picture a cross between Run Lola Run and The Sweet Hereafter. If you can do such a thing, you have an idea of what Winter Sleepers is like.

The marriage of Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer's style and a quiet tale of a wintry tragedy's effects on five residents of a sleepy Alpine village seems like a disastrous concept. Yet, despite radically different subject matter from Run Lola Run, Tykwer's artistic vision works. Winter Sleepers is Tykwer's work from the first shot, and draws you in immediately: a young blonde dressed in bright red stares at a drop of blood forming on her finger, with the camera close in on the finger, when the phone rings. Visions of Run Lola Run immediately spring to mind.Mattes and Sellem

Through a series of rapidly edited parallel scenes propelled by music that is quieter, but nevertheless similar to that of Run Lola Run (Tykwer is listed as a composer for both films), we meet all the players. The voluptuous blonde is Rebecca (Floriane Daniel), a young translator who works part time in the office of the local ski school. She is having an affair with one of the ski instructors, Marco (Heino Ferch), a conceited, controlling layabout who physically resembles the ideal Aryan man. Rebecca lives in a large house inherited by her roommate, Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem), a striking, world-weary nurse and amateur actress who has abandoned the big city. Meanwhile, we also meet Theo (Josef Bierbichler), a local farmer and father of three struggling to earn a living. René (Ulrich Matthes), a loner who works as a projectionist at the local movie theater, soon drifts into their lives and dramatically alters them all.

To say anything further about the story would ruin your viewing experience. It's not a strongly plot-driven film, and foreknowledge would diminish the impact when key things do happen. The joy of Winter Sleepers lies in the discovery.

Despite the story's essential stillness and quiet, Tykwer keeps the film moving, not only with his active cinematography, sharp editing, and driving music, but by constantly revealing new information. Avoiding a lengthy exposition, he launches right into the story. Even though a few individual events are predictable, Winter Sleepers' final destination is an intriguing mystery. When a small but key bit of information is divulged after the first hour, the whole film turns upside down. Visually accentuating the transformation, one of the characters abruptly changes hairstyle.
The Big Picture
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Tykwer paints lushly. His characters are color coded, for example, Rebecca with brilliant reds, Laura with dark greens, and Marco with various shades of blue, whereas René wears mostly black and white and Theo seems to blend into the alpine background. The picture quality of the DVD isn't crisp, and DVD data compression makes a handful of extended still shots look completely frozen. Oddly, these flaws suit the material. The soft look creates the dreamy effect of an impressionist painting. The static effect of the compression only enhances the contrast with the motion and energy of the rest of the film.

One can complain that Marco's character is a touch too broadly drawn, and one can wish that the resolution were logically stronger. It's founded on a misunderstanding that's a little too coincidental and a little too implausible. Though the ending may seem to be a slight stretch upon dispassionate analysis, it feels thematically satisfying and appropriate.

Released in the United States after Run Lola Run, Winter Sleepers actually preceded it. (It didn't secure U.S. distribution until after Run Lola Run became a hit.) Together, the films are two sides of the same coin, opposites in content but similar in style and artistry. One might even argue that they share thematic similarities. In Run Lola Run, Lola is desperately seeking a happy ending with the odds stacked against her and a tragedy in the making hanging over her head. In Winter Sleepers, the odds are stacked as well. The tragedy occurs in the beginning and hangs over the rest of the film, seemingly precluding happy endings for any of the characters involved. Will any of them beat the odds?

Review © March 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 Winstar Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

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