Film Review – The Sandman
There are many ways film can be entertaining, but one of my favorite ways is for it to be a vehicle for entertainment and escapism. That isn’t to say film shouldn’t be thought-provoking, but I’m always excited to see movies that push my imagination and make me want to be more creative. One of the most consistently creative areas of film is the world of independent cinema.
I get to spend a fair amount of time in the indie world, as I work as a programmer for STIFF (aka Seattle’s True Independent Film Festival). During the last cycle of the festival, we were lucky enough to be able to screen a film titled The Sandman (Der Sandmann), from director Peter Luisi. The film is Swiss in origin and tells the story of an angry man named Benno (played by Fabian Krüger), who, after a confrontation with his downstairs neighbor Sandra (played by Irene Brügger), begins to turn into sand. The catch, though, is that he only turns into sand when he is lying, and his only hope for stopping it is with the help of Sandra. As one might assume, high jinks ensue as he tries to hide what is happening to him.
On the surface the story might seem a little ridiculous, and I think it is fair to criticize it since it is one of the weaker elements of the film. This is the kind of film where you either fully embrace the concept or you won’t be entertained. Also, the basis for the relationships are tenuous early on, and even before the fantasy elements begin you are forced to give the characters some leeway. At its core, the film is a love story, and ignoring the plausibility of the leads connecting, once they are together they have solid chemistry.
One of the more interesting aspects of watching foreign films is that they aren’t locked in the conventions of most American films. The line between thinking of film as art and focusing on story is more frequently blurred. This dates back almost a hundred years with German Expressionism, and has continued on since then with periods such as the French New Wave and Dogme95 If you think of The Sandman as a work of art, it makes sense that the greatest strength of the movie is the visuals. The cinematography is solid and the visual effects, particularly when Benno is turning to sand, are incredible well done. I’m not sure what the budget was, but they certainly got their money’s worth, as it feels expensive. The sand budget alone on this film feels like it must have been high.
Beyond the visuals, high marks are given to the actors, who take what could be a cheesy premise and make it engaging. For the physical comedy alone that is required for his character, Krüger deserves to be commended. Lugging around pants filled with sand must not have been easy. The film is built to let the leads shine and it is nice to see characters who evolve and grow, and despite their initial flaws you are rooting for them by the end. The smaller support roles provide for some quirky characters who help lead to some of the biggest laughs in the film.
The music in the film is excellent, which makes perfect sense since Irene Brügger wrote and performed all her character’s songs. This isn’t to say it is a musical, but her character plays an aspiring musician—which is the basis for some of Benno’s early mocking. Additionally, the score of the movie is very powerful and makes it feel very theatrical, almost like an opera or musical at times. Music is frequently one of areas filmmakers use to manipulate the audience, but because the music blends with the fantasy here it is enjoyable. If this film had been played seriously, it could have become overbearing.
Ultimately, this film comes down to the creative. As I spoke of before, the biggest challenge for the film is that the narrative isn’t grounded in reality. The story of Benno turning into a man made of sand is complicated enough before the filmmakers decide to add a secondary parallel storyline about halfway through the film that takes Benno into an alternate “dream world” where the dynamics of this relationship with Sandra have changed, causing Benno to re-evaluate what is happening to him in his conscious state. I was grateful that I was watching it on DVD and could rewind as needed, which is unnecessary to enjoy the film but helped me make sure I wasn’t missing something. People who are expecting the story to make sense by the end are going to be disappointed. This is a film that takes you on an emotional journey and doesn’t sweat the details. It is tough for me to classify this film, since it crosses between so many genres—comedy, drama, fantasy, musical—and it does them all successfully.
Sadly, The Sandman is one of those films that very likely will never get the exposure that it deserves. I’ve seen it play at a few film festivals, but it hasn’t gotten any mainstream buzz. I suspect it will be destined to disappear into the anonymity of the shelves of Scarecrow Video unless it gets some buzz generated via word of mouth. Unfortunately, as of now, the options to see it are very limited, and there seems to be no clear timeframe for when it will make its way to DVD.