Berlinale 2024 review: Sleep With Your Eyes Open (Nele Wohlatz)

“It is clear the film’s main strengths and interest lie in the sensorial depictions of cultural estrangement.”

It seems counterproductive to think of the films of German filmmaker Nele Wohlatz from their synopses. Yes, they are narrative-driven features with central characters and even a relatively straightforward dramatic arc, but her work’s distinctiveness resides in the ambitious structural plays at their core.

In 2016’s The Future Perfect, this came by way of framing the assimilation process of Xiaobin, a Chinese immigrant in Buenos Aires, through the progression of her Spanish lessons, each verb tense working as an opportunity to explore her personal history, her current situation, and as the title informs, eventually even her dreams and aspirations. The additive characterization at the core of The Future Perfect was an evocative mirroring of Xiaobin’s linguistic development almost in real time, an engrossing and palpable grounding in the emotional landscape that is adapting to a new environment and erratically navigating the apprehension of an unknown outside world. 2024’s Sleep With Your Eyes Open takes the same basic conceit of migrant displacement and alienation, and builds a different kind of tale, one more consciously scattered and with a higher conceptual portent, despite being slightly less novel in its structure.

Wohlatz’s latest follows the interconnected tales of Xiao Xin, a Chinese migrant who arrives in Recife to live with her aunt and be part of their family’s shop emporium, and of Kai, a heartbroken tourist seeking solace in the colorful beachfront city. The flow between stories is guided by Kai finding Xiao Xin’s postcards, where the epistolary narrative weaves together the different migrant experiences through affective parallelisms. Locations are shared between timelines and carry the same aura of melancholy, being framed by previous experiences of feeling left out, and reverberating through linear history. After all, Sleep With Your Eyes Open embraces a meandering form in a more overt manner than The Future Perfect. In the former, progression isn’t as straightforward, spiraling through everyday vignettes that exalt the abrasive elements of Brazilian culture to the protagonists. In that sense, the latter’s low-key ethos manifests dramatically, but not necessarily discursively.

Perhaps influenced by the standouts of Recife cinema, or simply by the production credit of Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Bacurau), Sleep With Your Eyes Open is more blatant in how it approaches the socio-political tension inherent to the mere presence of Asian immigrants in a ‘respectable’ part of the city, specifically within one of the monolithic, oceanview high-rises that clutter the coastal panorama. Expressions of racism and xenophobia at times collide with the naivete at the heart of Wohlatz’s wry humor and mellow drama, her lack of cathartic intent nerfing some sense of urgency.

It is clear the film’s main strengths and interests lie in the sensorial depictions of cultural estrangement; the mentions of changing fragrances, the desolate urban spaces, the inconclusive hums and sounds of a tropical metropole… they all seem foreign to Xiao Xin and Kai, but at the same time they soon come to understand that the faraway place they call home isn’t statically waiting for them. It moves at a rapid pace, everything in the constant flux of National Progress. Their recognition of their birthplace even comes into question as the uncertainty of their return sinks in. Slowly but steadily their identity is reconfigured, no longer determined by ache and fear but by hope.