I liked Run Lola Run as I was watching it, felt a little unsatisfied when I left the theatre, and forgot about it 15 minutes later. For something hyped so heavily as the Next Big Deal in German cinema, of all things, it sure didn’t stick to my slats for very long. I remembered a friend of my Dad’s telling me about American servicemen who used to bring their Corvettes over to race them on the Autobahn. The Germans in their Porsches would spend the first few miles in the weeds, then fly past laughing and flipping der Vogel at the foolish Yankees and their burned-out engines smoking along the shoulder.
Another thing about the Autobahn: There aren’t many fender-benders on it. Accidents tend more toward the high-speed pile-up end of the spectrum. I thought that director Tom Tykwer would get creamed driving 80 kph in the passing lane he made for himself with Run Lola Run, and then fall as flat as the Dutch Alps trying to graft his fascination for coincidence and consequence onto a film that idles as patiently as Run Lola Run tears ass. But was I ever wrong. Quite to the contrary, Winter Sleepers savors its consequences and lets you consider them in real time as the characters struggle to cope with events that befall them in selective screen time.
A round of cinematic handshakes (interspersed with an unfortunately long series of titles) puts a name to the face of each of the five major characters, and after that the film retreats into Godlike silence for most of its first half. Tykwer cleverly places the unfolding action against the backdrop of a Swabian ski resort, where the blanket of snow and sentinel black cliffs make strong visual contributions to the pervasive feeling of dread just beneath the surface of everything.
Hmm: remote and snowy Alpine village, escalating climate of hysterical dread, whistling winds of the death plummet…say, have I ever told you about this movie Careful? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before! Seriously, though, Alpine villages are the perfect settings for films in which it’s important for the viewer to feel that some supernatural force is acting on the characters. In The Blue Light, young men of a remote Alpine village are lured to their deaths by a strange glow on a mountaintop. In Der Weisse Hölle vom Piz-Palü, it’s a young man’s anguish at the disappearance of his beloved on another high mountaintop (he wanders for years looking for her—nowadays we refer to his problem as a “lack of closure”) and the general fear of death in the mountains. There are no atheists in foxholes, or in the Alpine villages of vintage German cinema. For another example, see Josef Vilsmaier’s Brother of Sleep, in which the supernatural manifests itself in the squalor of an Alpine peasant village in the form of the village weirdo with an incredible gift for playing the organ.
In Winter Sleepers, the sturdy peasant folk are replaced with German twentysomethings, and what’s acting on them isn’t anything as symbolic as a fatal blue light or as freakish as the yellow-eyed organ pounder in Brother of Sleep. What’s acting on them is anything that isn’t just plain humdrum nothing. Actual sleep doesn’t figure into Winter Sleepers; it’s about four people figuratively snoozing their lives away for lack of ambition or anything better to do. Laura is a nurse who tries her hand as Stella in a lousy production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She lives in an adorable ski stuga with Rebecca, who works at the local ski resort and moonlights as a translator of American bodice-rippers. Rebecca is infatuated with Marco, a loutish ski instructor with the resort’s Total Ski School.
A gruesome catastrophe serves as the catalyst to bring the other two characters into the picture: a projectionist named Rene and a bankrupt farmer (whom no one knows) named Theo. It’s understood at the beginning of the film that the characters will somehow come together, so there’s little to do and little to distract you until it becomes apparent how Tykwer intends to weave each one into the grand scheme of things and, more importantly, how far he intends to take the consequences of the big event. His first agenda doesn’t take very long, but the second one gives Winter Sleepers its exquisite tension. The film is glacially paced—like two hours of silence waiting for the thunderclap of a falling pin—but as mentioned, the result stays with you longer than any of the retold strands of Run Lola Run. Tykwer is often written off as a lucky dilettante who hit paydirt with a movie suited for MTV attention spans, but it’s obvious here that he’s got a lot more to draw on than just breakneck editing skills.
There are three moments of comedy, a couple of deeply embedded jokes and an interesting technique of color-coding each character (persons further interested in the implications of the color symbolism should consult Eisenstein’s The Film Sense). The acting is superb, and (one too-obvious chance meeting aside), Tykwer discreetly errs on the side of grimy realism. If only this had been Tykwer’s follow-up to Run Lola Run and not its predecessor, I for one would be on tenterhooks waiting to see what he can do next.