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Everyone has his reasons

Sven von Reden reviews Benjamin Heisenberg's chillingly realistic film "Sleeper"

Without trust, everything is fiction; this motto opened the screenplay of "Sleeper". Director Benjamin Heisenberg borrowed the saying from the artist Douglas Gordon (more). From the very beginning, "Sleeper" is framed by suspicion, a perspective which blurs the distinction between reality and phantasm. Already in the first scene, Heisenberg creates an uncomfortable feeling of long-term observation, using means similar to those of Francis Ford Coppola in the opening of his paranoia thriller "The Conversation." With a long lens and directional microphone, the camera records a conversation between a man and a woman in which it becomes clear that the woman works for the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the German secret service. She tries to persuade the young man to keep an eye on his Algerian colleague at his new place of work.

From that moment on, every glance the young biologist Johannes (Bastian Trost) takes at Farid (Mehdi Nebbou) is poisoned. Every detail, every action and gesture of the Algerian is filtered through this bias. Are Farid's friendliness, his humour, his love of a good drink, all just a facade? Why does he suddenly start speaking Arabic with a stranger when Johannes comes within earshot? Why are the windows of his apartment taped with silver paper? Heisenberg avoids letting the evidence become too clear, playing with the genre expectations created by Hollywood. "Sleeper" does not turn into a thriller in which the details slowly add up to form a coherent picture of a crime. And Johannes certainly does not become a hero who matures in the face of danger. The conspiracy remains a theory, the parts cannot be made into a whole – and here Heisenberg shows he is a student of Jacques Rivette.

Bastian Trost as JohannesBastian Trost as Johannes

The director and author is interested in the psychogram of uncertainty in which the fear of terrorism gets entangled in a much broader social disorientation. "Do you know what's worst in life? That you can understand every person, that everyone has his reasons," says Johannes to Farid. At this point, the biologist has already navigated a serpentine course between cooperating with the secret service and refusing to do so. Johannes wants to do the right thing, but he can't find a clear position from which to repel the state's advances as his relationship with Farid – privately and professionally - becomes increasingly defined by competition.

"Everyone has his reasons" - one of the key sentences in Jean Renoir's masterpiece "La regle du jeu". Like Renoir, Heisenberg tries not to shape the viewer's relationship to the characters. He remains distant, even in dramatic moments, observing patiently instead of emphasising. Johannes' behaviour is both understandable and reprehensible. Bastian Trost's restrained performance makes the protagonist a projection screen for the audience's moral conflict. This wouldn't function if the work and living environments of the protagonists weren't depicted so well. The fact that Heisenberg comes from a family of biologists must have helped. The kind of humour, the interactions with friends, the way he spends his free time, the pubs he goes to, the LAN parties; Heisenberg situates the young scientist in an environment the credibility of which is truly rare in German film.

Mehdi Nebbou as Farid, Loretta Pflaum as BeateMehdi Nebbou as Farid, Loretta Pflaum as Beate

Heisenberg is not alone with this mix of a new realism and distorted perspectives. Christoph Hochhäusler's second film "Low Profile," also running in Germany, throws an equally realistic light on daily life in West Germany, but combines this with the fantasies of the young protagonist for so long that by the end, it is no longer clear what actually remains of this reality. Heisenberg had already co-written the screenplay to Hochhäusler's "Milchwald", in which the reality of life on the Polish German border meets the world of Grimm fairy tales. This grey zone between reality beyond the shaky-camera aesthetic and dream, phantasm, myth or paranoia is popular among young German film makers such as Ulrich Köhler and Valeska Grisebach. It's a field so vast that it allows for very individual cinematic signatures while at the same time offering a framework which justifies the term that is frequently being used to define it: the German new wave.

"Sleeper", Directed by Benjamin Heisenberg. With Bastian Trost, Mehdi Nebbou and more Germany/Austria 2005, 100 Min.


The article originally appeared in Die Tageszeitung on May 10, 2006.

Sven von Reden is a freelance journalist.

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