Winter Sleepers (review)

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Sleepwalking Through Life

Self-absorbed Generation Xers can be so, well, tedious. Doesn’t matter that I am one myself — self-absorbed Xer, that is — one of our defining qualities is that we pretty much can’t stand one another. That’s probably why Winter Sleepers — from Tom Tykwer, the writer and director of Run Lola Run — left me cold. The gaggle of young people the film revolves around just aren’t narcissistic in any kind of interesting way.

Becky (Floriane Daniel), who translates pornography for a living, is slowly drifting away from her boyfriend, Marco (Heino Ferch), a ski instructor at the nearby resort, high in the mountains of Germany, and things go from bad to worse when he moves in with her and devolves into a couch potato. Why Becky hangs on to this loser is never really clear — he’s cute enough, all right, but he’s a domineering jerk. Her roommate, Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem), a nurse and amateur actress, doesn’t think much of Marco, either… but then, Becky thinks Laura’s new boyfriend — Rene (Ulrich Matthes), the projectionist at the local movie theater — is “weird.” And he is. Rene carries a camera with him everywhere, taking pictures of things he really shouldn’t — like Marco and Becky having sex — and keeping them all in photo albums he pores over regularly.
Rene turns out not to be the creepy voyeur he appears at first, but the very specific reason he is such a photography buff doesn’t get an adequate explanation until near the end of the film. We’re supposed to see Marco and Rene as living life through a filter, I suppose, the one’s television and the other’s camera keeping them at a remove from the rest of the world, but that’s hardly a revelation about this generation, is it? And even the women seem fairly oblivious to most of what goes on around them — the fact that it’s Christmastime, for example, seems to have little impact on the characters. Aside from one mention of the Christmas presents stolen along with Marco’s car at the beginning of the film, the season passes by completely unnoticed.

The only character that seems connected to the outside world is Theo (Josef Bierbichler), who, notably, is a good twenty years older than the others… and hence is not a self-absorbed Xer. His young daughter is terribly injured in an automobile accident involving Marco’s stolen Alfa Romeo, driven by a character who filches the car for reasons that go entirely unexplained. Theo, driving the other vehicle, is dazed from the accident and unsure even of what happened, but as days pass and his daughter’s life slips away, he becomes obsessed with finding the man he thinks is responsible for the accident, whom he can only vaguely identify by a strange scar he half-remembers seeing.

Like Run Lola Run, which writer/director Tom Tykwer made immediately after this, Winter Sleepers looks terrific. The film opens with cinematographer Frank Greibe’s camera energetically sliding along snow-covered mountain roads and railroad tracks as the credits zoom around the screen, and the driving score (by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil) infects you with its nervous verve. At first, Winter Sleepers makes you feel positively itchy, in the best possible way, like you could leap right into the action on the screen.

But the opening minutes of Winter Sleepers are misleading — the two hours that come next have a moping quality to them. And like Lola, the themes here are similar: how our lives are defined by the minor mishaps and major calamities that befall us, and what huge roles chance and coincidence plays. But where Lola was an absolute triumph of style and substance, Winter Sleepers falls short when it comes to substance — the coincidences feel less like the characters’ fate than the filmmaker’s contrivances, and the style seems to undermine the story rather than enhance it.

It’s heartening to know, though, that Run Lola Run was Tykwer’s follow-up to Winter Sleepers. It bodes well for his next film.

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