Brother of Sleep

on September 13, 1996 by Kim Williamson
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Only a small step shy of utter magnificence and more than deserving of its foreign-language Oscar nom, the latest from Joseph Vilsmaier (the vigorously moving "Stalingrad") recalls the best days of Peter Weir--the early era of his brooding and otherworldly "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "The Last Wave." There, Weir was able to make perceptible a level of reality too ethereal to be pictured, and here Vilsmaier matches him with an ability to make the metaphysical terrene. That said, Vilsmaier and scripter Robert Schneider (adapting his novel "Schlafes Bruder") also effectively mix in a contrasting muck of soap-opera dramatics, establishing their tale as one all too sadly of this earth.
"Brother of Sleep," a story whose most important element will be almost orgiastic keyboard music, opens with a spectacularly chilling silence: High in the Alps, in a tiny and forsaken mountain village in the 1800s, a baby emerges stillborn from his mother (Michaela Rosen). Flustered by death, the hapless midwife (Regina Fritsch) begins to sing "Te Deum"--and the baby comes alive. Grown, the boy Elias ("Kaspar Hauser's" Andre Eisermann)--so strangely different that the townspeople treat him scornfully when they venture close enough to treat him at all (even his mother says his gaze makes her shiver with the fear that he was born of the "cold sperm" of Satan)--exhibits a talent beyond perfect pitch. His lovely singing voice and especially his astounding abilities with the local church's decrepit organ don't win him converts, but even the hateful villagers marvel at the euphonies he creates. In their small and fetid hearts, they can recognize the notes of the divine.
In a spellbinding sequence, Vilsmaier captures the moment when Elias fully becomes a creature of a special plane. One day, the music of the spheres gentle in his ears, Elias hears the heartbeat of another human, and that heartbeat is the same as his own: Elsbeth, the about-to-be-born sister of Elias' one friend, Peter (German stage actor Ben Becker). Drawn to her birthing place, Elias is driven away; he flees to a small lake, in which is embedded a singular rock--a rock that is shaped like "the impression of His overpowering foot as He passes," that unlike all other rocks has no veins and is "as soft as milk" (a symbol suggesting an ultimately kind cosmology). Lying naked there, curled in a foetal position on the sublime stone, Elias begins to hear everything. (Vilsmaier's Cinemascope metaphor is clouds scraping against mountaintops like astral violining; longtime Vilsmaier scorer Norbert J. Schneider provides a fabulously thunderous cacophony.) The universe a seethe of sound, Elias screams; blood pours from his orifices; his eyes go orange. Later, in trying to transcribe these sonic transmissions, what Elias inks is less musical notation than some etching of supernatural sine waves.
Providing character conflict in "Brother of Sleep" are two tragic menages a trois, in both of which figure Elias and Elsbeth ("Autumn Milk's" Dana Vavrova, again superb under husband Vilsmaier's direction). The two characters are, by the highest power, earthly fated for each other; but Peter wants Elias for himself, the villagers have chosen the lunkish Lukas (Detlef Bothe) for Elsbeth--and Elias is spiritually fated to a completely different calling. Fire, infidelity and murder follow as the lives of the three key players and the existence of the hamlet itself wend toward and beyond catastrophe. In a difficult role, Eisermann is excellent; he makes Elias' preternaturalism authentic. For their parts, actress Vavrova and director Vilsmaier make an artistic duo the equal of the Thompson-Branagh and Jacob-Kieslowski pairings of past years. The most demanding and best film of 1996 so far, "Brother of Sleep" looks ready to rouse the somnolence of the arthouse circuit, which of late has favored more easily digested entertainments. A meld of Rilkean heights and human depths, it's a film for a long dark night's rumination. Starring Andre Eisermann, Dana Vavrova and Ben Becker. Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. Written by Robert Schneider. A Perathon/B.A./Kuchenreuther/Iduna/DOR production. A Sony Classics release. Drama. German-language; subtitled. Rated R for violent and disturbing images, and for some sexuality. Running time: 131 min.
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