In Sleep Darling, Lang tries to combine a dark detective film with a romance and a psychological drama, but his feature lacks tension, murkiness, and an aura of mystery.
He was post-war Kraków’s bogeyman, proven guilty of committing six murders and two attempted murders, but there were most likely many more victims. Władysław Mazurkiewicz, who was hanged in January 1957, was featured in Krzysztof Kąkolewski’s excellent works in his lifetime, and, many years after death, he became the main character of Cezary Łazarewicz’s book Elegant Murderer. Unfortunately, Krzysztof Lang’s film, made two years after the feature’s premiere, will not repeat its success. It lacks narrative zest and a well-thought-out structure but above all… a protagonist.
In Sleep Darling, Krzysztof Lang is not able to decide whether he is more interested in the serial killer’s (Andrzej Chyra) story or in that of the young policeman (Tomasz Schuchardt) chasing after him, so he took the middle road and created a bizarre film hybrid. Lang and Andrzej Gołda, the screenwriter, wanted to create a feature in which, as Michael Mann did in Heat, they would introduce two people standing on opposing sides, who, at the same time, are similar to each other.
The problem is that what worked for Mann, despite being introduced over two decades ago, does not work in Sleep Darling for even a short while. The Poles did not find the key thanks to which the serial killer’s story and the one about the origin of evil would coalesce with the narrative about the corrupted post-war Kraków and the ‘dirty cops’ serving in the secret political police. In effect, Mazurkiewicz’s story becomes merely a prelude to the policeman’s, who does not bow to the communist regime’s notables and pursues the truth at any cost.
Sleep Darling changes from being a serial killer’s portrait into a crime postcard from the past, which offers space for corrupted judges and dirty investigators to conceal Mazurkiewicz’s actions, as well as for some attractive femme fatales.
When animating this noir landscape on screen, the filmmakers forgot about sketching incisive portraits of the main characters. Mazurkiewicz is introduced in the first scene as an unprofessional murderer who almost bungles his first kill and does not change too much later on, because Chyra’s character is neither terrifying nor likeable; in fact, not even ambiguous. Instead of a demonic criminal mastermind like Hannibal Lecter, we only get a lost smarty-pants, able to pay off whoever the situation demands.
The character played by Tomasz Schuchardt, another stellar actor, does not present himself much better. His idealistic policeman ends up lifeless. Rather than a flesh and blood character, he is treated as a useful figure, able to walk the viewers by the hand through the story’s (limited) intricacies.
Here lies Krzysztof Lang’s film’s greatest flaw: instead of telling the story of Mazurkiewicz’s and the young policeman’s duel, the director reconstructs their history point by point. He does not build dramaturgy, but merely informs the viewer about what happened when, why and because of whom. Searching for even a trace of suspense in Sleep Darling turns out to be pointless. Subsequent plot twists occur only because they are dictated by the screen-writing manual, and not because they stem from the characters’ actions.
Lang’s feature is governed by ‘deus ex machina’ logic. It is noticeable, for instance, in the policeman’s investigation’s breakthrough moments. The protagonist stops for a short while, like a character from a Turkish drama, musingly looks through the window, and, after a second, he stumbles upon a solution to the complicated criminal puzzle – it looks almost cartoonish.
Sleep Darling does not tap into its hidden potential. It is a shame, especially because of Adam Sikora’s stylish shots and an outstanding cast whose talents were wasted here. Even actors as brilliant as Andrzej Chyra and Tomasz Schuchardt are not able to overcome Sleep Darling’s dramatic deficiencies. This is also the case of the supporting actors: the congenial Andrzej Grabowski and the touching Arkadiusz Jakubik add to Lang’s film’s charm and steal the show temporarily, but are not capable of breathing life into it.
Sleep Darling was supposed to be Krzysztof Lang’s comeback from the land of romantic comedies, straight to the domain of dark, masculine cinema. The story about the life and death of ‘Handsome Władek’ fails in every aspect – it is a thriller lacking suspense, a misogynistic trifle about women being responsible for all the world’s evils, and a dialogue with the classics (with Melville, Leon, and Scorsese, whom are all cited by Lang), with whom the director is unable to engage in serious discussion.
Originally written by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, October 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, November 2017.Bartosz Staszczyszyn