Sunday, August 8, 2021

Winter Sleepers (Winterschläfer)


Director Tom Tykwer









WINTER SLEEPERS (Winterschläfer)         A                                                                    Germany  France  (122 mi)  1997  ‘Scope  d:  Tom Tykwer

Before the opening credit sequence rolls by, filmgoers are immediately aware that they are in the presence of a talented filmmaker, as there are swooping aerial shots that suggest an intoxicating beauty, yet they are balanced into a larger whole where the majestic realm of nature is presented as only one of the many diverse characters.  Yet somehow, it is impossible not to acknowledge that snow in this tiny Bavarian mountainous ski resort village of Berchtesgaden has rarely been depicted with such haunting beauty as here, where the shimmering backdrop of a wintry countryside has a ghostly quality, with small farmhouses nestled next to a forest silhouetted in the fog, winding mountainous roads only partially clear from ice and blowing snow, and an extraordinary landscape of snowcapped peaks that are explored with a dazzling virtuosity by cinematographer Frank Griebe in this mesmerizing film.  All but left for dead in the dusty shelves of unreleased films, this director’s first film was only released outside Germany after the astounding commercial success of his second film, Run Lola Run (Lolo Rennt) (1998), which became an international arthouse hit.  However it is without any reservation whatsoever that this initial film remains the most astounding of all of Tykwer’s works, where there’s near surgical control in his style, an extraordinary restraint in developing mood while the story unravels, always allowing the cris-crossing storylines to unfold at their own pace, taking place between Christmas and New Years, with events triggered by a car accident shrouded in mystery, never providing any real backdrop to the rather complicated interweaving narrative, which lures the audience into these people’s lives, where tone precedes knowledge.  Contending with internalized alienation issues, the main characters are each suffering with personal issues, all hiding buried secrets, seemingly without drive or ambition, living in an arrested state of development, leading shallow and meaningless lives, subject to their own narcissism and self-serving interests, viewed as outsiders in a small town community setting.  We get the feel of the film within the first few minutes, while it’s only later that we learn who the characters are and what’s happening in their lives.    

An existential snow mystery featuring two couples sharing a house together in the Alps, including two exceptional women, the luminous Rebecca (Floriane Daniel), a sensuous, overtly sexual blond who works as an assistant at a ski resort, doubling as a romance novel translator, and Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem), a more introverted dark-eyed beauty who works as an emergency room nurse at the local hospital, and their troublesome boy friends, Marco (Heino Ferch), an arrogant ski instructor at the resort who denigrates locals and is also a compulsive womanizer, something of a plague on the community, having a tempestuous affair with Rebecca, both viewed as mythical Nordic figures fitting neatly into the blond Aryan race stereotype, both driven by libidinious impulses, and René (Ulrich Matthes), a peculiar, more isolated guy that Laura discovers, who continually takes pictures in an attempt to help him recall what he immediately forgets due to his short-term memory loss.  Into this mix is an older farmer (Josef Bierbichler) whose daughter is thrown from a car in an accident and is in a coma struggling to survive.  He fears her loss may push him over the edge financially, thinking he may lose his farm.  While all are connected in an odd sort of mix, it would be wrong to make too much of that even though chance plays a prominent role, as these connections are more accidental than the controlling or determining forces in anyone’s life.  Instead the interweaving storylines give the director an opportunity to build character as we come to know them, where we eventually feel an intimate familiarity with each one of them, though it’s hard to know what really drives any of them.  In this manner, what happens to them matters, but also how it happens, which at times spins brilliantly out of control.  Again, it is the underlying mood that creates who these people are, as it comes from within.  A story of chance and fate, the film teeters between being a thriller and revolving around the alienation and loneliness of the characters, where they know less about each other than the viewer does, becoming a razor-sharp picture of a 30’s-something generation with their doubts and uncertainties still intact, each contemplating new beginnings.  The title may refer to an autobiographical younger generation of lost souls hibernating dormant from deep within the nation’s consciousness that need to be awakened from their apathy and slumber, like coming out of a lengthy European Cold War thaw. 

Based on an unpublished novel by Anne-Françoise Pyszora, Expense of Spirit, who worked with the director altering the novel’s French seaside resort setting to a snowy alpine hamlet with spectacular panoramic views, a region German audiences would immediately identify with Hitler’s summer residence known as the Eagle’s Nest, aka Kehlsteinhaus, while adding the older farmer character to the mix adds a stark generational contrast, something of a throwback to the German Heimat mountain films of Leni Riefenstahl’s THE BLUE LIGHT (1932) or Luis Trenker’s THE PRODIGAL SON (1934).  Premiering at the Locarno Film Festival, this was the first film seen featuring the spare, hauntingly mystical music of Arvo Pärt, “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” from “Tabula Rasa,” Arvo Pärt – Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Tõnu Kaljuste | Elbphilharmonie LIVE YouTube (8:21), fusing a dazzling visual style with a unique storytelling technique where a heavily pronounced musical score is so quiet and becomes so prevalent that it actually provides an unseen narrative structure for the developing romances and amazing mountain landscapes, making proficient use of slow motion photography, with viewers able to experience the dreamlike, near hallucinogenic feeling of a colossal mountain freefall.  There is frequent use of a 360-degree pan shot, evoking the cinematography of Fassbinder’s Michael Ballhaus, a technique first utilized in MARTHA (1974) and continuing into Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), yet there is also additional music written by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and the director himself that adds a delicate feel to what we are experiencing, music that is so internally expansive when matched with such gorgeous imagery, offering a poetic path to comprehension, where the contrast of a brilliantly designed color scheme against the glacial outdoors is striking.  One goes to movies for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to be entertained or moved, but the hypnotic musical choices in this film are so emotionally impactive, Spain "Untitled #1" - YouTube (6:38), and in such complete harmony with both what the characters are experiencing and also the awesome splendor of the world around them, Arvo Pärt : Fratres : Definitive version for violin, strings & Percussion - I Flammingi / Werthen YouTube (12:01).  In essence, this inner light becomes one of the things we keep searching for when we go to the movies.  It’s rare to find it in films and this director, sort of a cross between Terrence Malick and Krzysztof Kieślowski, does a masterful balancing act creating a cinematic feeling very close to a state of grace, No Plans No Projects - Wim Mertens - YouTube (5:13).

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