Tom Tykwer, who to date has made only four features, and whose mark as one of the great innovators in cinema is already assured at the age of 35 through his amazing fourth film "Run Lola Run," now has his third film, "Winter Sleepers (1997)," in limited release in this country.
Unlike his other films, "Winter Sleepers" comes from a novel by another writer, Ann-Francoise Pyszora, "Expense of Spirit," and we can see Tykwer struggling a bit to make a rather conventional story into a compelling and kinetically powerful film. The story is set during a snowy winter, in and around a mountain village in the German Alps, where ski instructor and compulsive womanizer Marco (Heino Ferch) and his girlfriend Rebecca (Floriane Daniel), a translator of novels, alternate between bouts of sex and bouts of fighting. He moves into the house she shares with Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem), a nurse at the local hospital.
Meanwhile the solemn and solitary projectionist at the local movie house, Rene (Ulrich Matthes), who has lost his short-term memory through an accidental brain injury, walks by drunk one afternoon, sees Marco's car with the keys inside, takes it for a joy-ride, and is involved in an accident with a poor farmer (Josef Bierbichler) who is driving his horse to the vet, but who does not know that his young daughter has snuck into the horse van until he finds her gravely injured in the accident. Rene walks away from the accident, which has buried the car out of sight, but carries no memory of it, and makes no connection between the carnage he sees and his possible involvement. Instead he begins a relationship with Laura, and the film follows everyone through the next months of the winter.
Tykwer, who has perhaps the greatest kinetic sense of any filmmaker I know, and whose Lola is the most adorable screen creation in years, seems uneasy in dealing with this essentially static story about five not-too-interesting people, and much of whatever moral structure the film might have is vitiated by Rene's inability to comprehend his responsibility for the little girl's injury. I should point out that the film makes clear that he did not cause the accident, but he does simply walk away and set a tragedy in motion.
And that in a way is the problem here. Marco is self-centered and boring, Rebecca is too lazy to remove herself from him, Laura is not well-enough developed as a character to engage us fully, and Rene, brooding, dark, and uncommunicative, is more acted-upon than active. We feel the pain that Theo, the farmer, and his wife go through as they watch over their daughter in the hospital, but the film leaves too much unresolved emotionally for us to empathize with anyone else.
Nevertheless, this is a Tom Tykwer film, and he shows his chops throughout. If you think that winter in the mountains has been done to death, look again. Tykwer's kinetic genius makes us see with freshness what a host of other filmmakers have reduced to clichés of snow, ice, and trees. He invests a shot of skiers disappearing into fog with the kind of ominous weight that drains us emotionally as we watch. And even his intimate shots of the couples at Laura's house are lit and framed with the kind of ironic distancing we loved so much in "Lola." He can shoot like a documentarian, with straightforward exposition, and like a classic expressionist, ending the film with an amazing sequence of a skier tumbling from the sky through air to earth and hell itself, every shot completely believable. It has the gorgeous, bravura power that would lead him two years later to the perfection of "Lola." (5/10/00)