Winter Sleepers Reviews
Good performances all round.
The film has its flaws: characters and denouement.
This is a film I have some history with - back in college, we were shown the ending in a European Cinema course I took as part of a lesson. Out of context, it was hard to make sense of what was going on in the story, but it was a captivating, spectacular end for the film. And it's only even better when you're actually watching the movie. I had been captivated by this ending, and it's taken me well over half a decade to finally see the film since. The same course also included the showing of the first twenty minutes of Run Lola Run, which impelled me to buy the film to see the rest, and ultimately turned me into a Tom Tykwer fan.
The entire cast turned strong performances, though the core of the film really only centers around the five leads, played by Ulrich Matthes, Heino Ferch, Marie-Lou Sellem, Floriane Daniel, and Josef Bierbichler. Prior to seeing the film, I wasn't particularly familiar with any of the cast.
Ulrich Matthes is appropriately detached and at times unsettling, as he spends much of the film quietly taking pictures of anything and everything and recording conversations, while also serving the function as the central force in the story that causes things to unravel for everyone else. It isn't until later that you realize why he is the way he is - when it's directly stated - and that only serves to heighten the tragedy of the circumstances that unfold between these characters.
Heino Ferch plays a difficult character to grasp, both for the viewer and other characters. On the surface, he seems like a simple meathead ski instructor, but his relationship with Floriane Daniel's lead character isn't clearly defined - it's hard to tell whether you're supposed to empathize with him or dislike him as you try to figure out whether you're watching a love story or not and just what his intentions are. In time, his true character comes to light and he becomes easier to dislike, but he's still human enough that you can't completely despise him. He ends up being central to one of the most spectacular aspects of the film's ending, and you're left wondering if he necessarily deserved what came to him then.
Floriane Daniel is lovely, seductive, and contrary - her confusing (even to her) relationship with Heino Ferch's character is a major part of the story. While she faces constant uncertainty in her relationship with Ferch, she tries to be a good friend to Sellem's character, and Matthes' character doesn't get a lot of screen time with her, but he introduces a new subtle mix of feelings to her character that even she avoids outright addressing.
Marie-Lou Sellem is even more of a complicated lead than Daniel, contradicting Daniel's veritable Hollywood beauty with something more real. While Daniel's character works as a translator, she struggles as a nurse and looks after Bierbichler's character's comatose daughter, while dreaming of being a better actress than she is and facing general frustration in her life, while her best friend struggles to figure out whether it's love with her hunky ski instructor. Matthes' appearance as a surprising romantic interest is realistically portrayed as the two have some initial chemistry, but take some time to warm up to each other and connect, but it's in their connection that the film's moving love story lies - with the less attractive, even more complicated characters.
And Josef Bierbichler's character is the outlier of the bunch - he has almost no direct interaction with any of the main cast, but because of a forgotten mistake made by Matthes, his daughter suffers a tragic fate and Bierbichler comes apart as he seeks revenge.
As in Tykwer's other films, love, fate, and intertwining circumstances are the film's central foci. Winter Sleepers sets the stage for his even better rounded works in the following years - especially Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior. While Lola has a relatively simple story told in a more complicated manner with multiple outcomes, Winter Sleepers is fully invested in its complex central character-driven narrative, at times at the expense of style - though at this point, Tykwer's style wasn't yet fully developed. The film's pace is so slow that it drags a little at times, which I had to deduct a little from my score for, but it's best compared to the later Princess and the Warrior, which carries itself with a similar pace and an even more considerable ambition - taking into account just how long the original cut of the film was before they chopped it down into the final release, leaving one curious if they would ever release the full original cut to see what we lost - and feels more polished and confident overall. Tykwer's later pace and cutting style wasn't yet defined in Winter Sleepers, but as you'd expect of one of his films, the cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking. And also notably, the use of color in Winter Sleepers is comparable to that in Kieslowski's best. There are so many little visual details that Winter Sleepers is a film that can only appreciate upon further viewings. As you'd expect from a Tykwer film, the soundtrack is brilliant, too.
Winter Sleepers is one of Tom Tykwer's earlier major works, and from what I've heard about the rare Deadly Maria (Which I'm not sure I'll ever see), it strikes me as Tykwer's landmark film that really defined where he was going to go afterward as he continued to develop his style and refine his talents as a director. It's a little rough around the edges, and at times it's a little too slow for its own good, lacking a bit of the vital polish that made his later films so memorable, but despite all that, Winter Sleepers is still a wonderful little film. Definitely give Winter Sleepers a watch - let these characters and their story chill you to the bone.