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Friday, April 28, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An existential mystery - but more fun

Special to the Seattle Times

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Movie review

XXX 1/2"Winter Sleepers," with Ulrich Matthes, Marie-Lou Sellem, Floriane Daniel, Heino Ferch, Josef Bierbichler. Written and directed by Tom Tykwer. Broadway Market. Unrated - some nudity, sex and violence. In German.

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Tom Tykwer is a writer/director who believes in cause and effect - the most minute causes have the most profound effects in his films. So it wouldn't be surprising if the kinetic energy of his hit movie, "Run Lola Run" was caused, in part, by the patience of his previous film, "Winter Sleepers," which is only now getting a wide American release.

After filming all of these characters who stumble, day-dreaming, through their lives, Tykwer needed some action, which is what Lola, running, provided.

Frank Griebe's camera work, on the other hand, is always brash and energetic. In "Sleepers" it out-races cars and gives us breathtaking views down mountainsides, but its primary focus is on half-a-dozen characters whose lives intersect in seemingly tangential but ultimately catastrophic ways.

Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem) shares her small, cozy lodge in a skiing village in Germany with Rebecca (Floriane Daniel), who has spent a winter weekend, as she says, "Waiting." Waiting for what is answered (in part) the following morning, when Marco (Heino Ferch), a handsome ski instructor, shows up at her door, and she pulls him into her bedroom before he even has the chance to close the door to his new car. Meanwhile, Rene (Ulrich Matthes), a movie-theater projectionist who has closed the nearby bar "Sleepers," comes across the car and steals it, just as Theo (Josef Bierbichler), a struggling farmer, hitches up his horse trailer and sets out along the icy mountain roads. Unbeknownst to him, his young daughter has stowed away aboard the trailer.

Rene and Theo are on a collision course, and in its aftermath, as Rene wanders dazed from the car wreck, Theo sees through the cracked windshield, sizzling like neon, the snakelike image of the scar on the back of Rene's head. After his daughter lapses into a coma he becomes obsessed with this image. Finding the owner of the scar, he feels, will mean finding the culprit of the crash, but the audience knows that blame is not so easily parceled out.

Indeed, if "Lola" could be considered an existential action movie, then "Winter Sleepers" is an existential mystery: a mystery in which the audience knows most of the answers, while the characters search for clues to the wrong questions.

It's also a complex, sexy film. Characters are never served to us whole, on a platter, but are revealed bit by bit through the story line. We see Laura walking to work listening to "A Streetcar Named Desire" on headphones and repeating Blanche's lines. Is she an actress? No, we find out a moment later, a nurse, but she acts in the local theater, which is where she meets Rene.

The two begin a relationship just as Rebecca's affair with Marco stagnates, and then twists itself into knots. Marco seems a lunk who grows more jealous of Rebecca the more he cheats on her. Yet he's vulnerable in a feminine way. After they fight, Rebecca tells him, without irony, "You're lovely when you're angry." He fears she's only interested in him for sex, which may be the case. At one point the two women talk about him:

Laura: I don't understand what he wants.

Rebecca: From me?

Laura: Generally.

The question applies back to them as well - what do they want? - and to the other characters in the film. Ultimately the question applies to the human condition, and thus to the audience. Are we all just sleepwalking through life?

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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