Film Review: Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs

What: Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs (Hannas schlafende Hunde)

Who: Directed by Andreas Gruber

When: Showing 30th May – 10th June

Where: German Film Festival at the Palace Nova Cinema Eastend

How much: $13.00-$21

They say that sleeping dogs should be let to lie, but history is never truely dormant.

Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs (Hannas schlafende Hunde) (2016) takes place in the Austrian town of Wels during the late 1960s, only a short distance from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Although over twenty years have passed since the fall of the Third Reich, wartime tensions still linger below the surface of everyday life. We see these tensions play out in the lives of 10-year-old Hanna (Nike Seitz), her mother (Franziska Weisz), a Jewish woman converted to Catholicism who lives by the motto “don’t stick out”, and her grandmother (Hannelore Elsner), who is increasingly impatient with the secrecy and repression that still control her family’s life.

Andreas Gruber’s film, an adaptation of Elisabeth Escher’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, is an interesting treatment of the legacy of National Socialism in Austria. Austria didn’t go through the same process of de-nazification as Germany itself did after the Second World War, and Gruber doesn’t flinch in examining the unresolved racial tensions and the sense of victimhood that wove themselves into Austrian post-war society. Although Hanna’s family wants to leave their trauma in the past, other townsfolk haven’t put their brutalised wartime selves to bed, and Hanna, initially unaware of her Jewish identity, becomes the unwitting target of their hostility. As suspicions about her family’s origins grow, Hanna doesn’t understand why her school teacher and peers bully her, why she is terrorised by her building’s janitor, or why a respectable bank manager, used to exploiting Jewish women’s vulnerability during the Nazi era, tells her that her mother “could be friendlier” to him. While Hanna’s mother’s secrecy about her heritage leaves Hanna ill-equipped to navigate these threats, her grandmother’s frankness allows her to begin to grapple with what it means to be Jewish in Europe after the Holocaust. The film eventually sees Hanna embrace her Jewish identity, and in so doing, empowers her family to begin to assert their place in their community.

Gruber’s adaptation is powerful and confronting. Seitz excels in her role as Hanna, and as the story unfurls almost entirely through the eyes of a child trying to make sense of her world, the audience is really made to feel the barely concealed hostility of life in the shadow of National Socialism. Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs can occasionally be a little heavy-handed with its metaphors, such as when Hanna literally wakes a sleeping dog. However, the film offers a visceral insight into a society in which guilt, victimhood, and trauma are part of the fabric of everyday life.

4/5 stars

– Felicity Brooks

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