Monday, April 03, 2017

KINO! ’17: Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs

In a small town like Wels, Austria, everybody knows everyone’s business. That makes life terribly uncomfortable for Johanna Berger’s family, but frankly they are about the only ones with nothing to be embarrassed about in Andreas Gruber’s Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 KINO! Festival of German Cinema in New York.

Even though she was blinded by a bomb blast, Ruth Eberth still survived the war through sheer determination. Her conveniently corrupt gentile second husband also helped. Unfortunately, persistence would have a price. Her roguish first husband was indeed deported to a concentration camp, but her daughter Katharina was able to pass for an Aryan Christian thanks to the sponsorship of Öllinger, the president of the local Wels bank. Of course, he extracted compensation in ways we can immediately guess, but the film treats like a deep, dark secret.

Naturally, Johanna is blissfully ignorant of her family history and her clueless father Franz hardly knows little more than she does. Neither recognizes the ill-concealed aggression in Herr Öllinger close-talking pleasantries. Nor does Johanna understand why the Catholic school’s lay catechism teacher is so openly hostile towards her. However, Eberth gets it only too well. She also knows exactly who their ogre-like building superintendent is and what he did in Linz during the war. She might be blind, but she sees better than anyone.

It seems like Gruber’s one fear in adapting Elisabeth Escher’s partly autobiographical novel was that someone might miss her point, so she just drives it into the ground. Granted, the events of Sleeping Dogs most likely take place in the early 1960s, a few years before Fritz Bauer’s Frankfort Auschwitz Trials, but it is hard to fathom how this small town would be so overtly anti-Semitic and unrepentantly nostalgic for the National Socialists. The kind of boorish, emotionally abusive behavior directed at young Johanna boggles the mind to the point of stretching credibility, which has rather frightening implications for a film like this.

As Johana, young Nike Seitz truly looks and sound like a Heavenly angel, which further exemplifies Gruber’s manipulative aesthetic. However, Hannelore Elsner provides invaluable support as Eberth, a truly wise a forceful presence, in a sharp-tongued kind of way.

Sleeping Dogs strives to do right and illuminate the dark corners of the Austro-German soul, but it is hindered by its own didacticism. We all understand many if not most Germans and Austrians remained in denial for decades after the war, but the Wels townsfolk practically act like they are living in 1934 Nuremberg. There are some moments of power that might just redeem the whole film, but we can’t deny its awkwardness. We want to like this film, but we feel compelled to instead recommend the documentary Inside Hanna’s Suitcase as an alternative film about young people confronting the truth of the Holocaust. Regardless, Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs screens tomorrow (4/4) and Wednesday (4/5) as part of this year’s KINO! in New York.