The title Werewolf invokes, especially among movie fans, images from the 1941 Universal horror classic The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. and other descendants from that line like The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and even the 2010 Benicio Del Toro reboot, The Wolfman. Polish filmmaker Adrian Panek’s Werewolf (aka Wilkolak, 2018) is not about that famous folklore legend but it does explore the bestial nature of man that emerges when people are brutalized and reduced to an animalistic state. It also qualifies as a horror film but not one set in a fantasy realm but in the grim aftermath of World War II.
The story begins in 1945 at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Germany, near the border of Poland. The German soldiers are fleeing the camp and their trained-to-kill dogs are released into the wild. Eight inmates from the camp, all children, are rescued by the Red Army and taken to a makeshift orphanage that has been set up within an abandoned country mansion in a remote part of the forest.
The situation is desperate. There is no electricity, little food or water and no one to attend to the children’s physical and psychological well-being except for Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka), a stressed-out, pessimistic older woman. Hanka (Sonia Mietielica), the oldest of the children, soon becomes the mother figure by default.
Despite the bucolic setting and natural beauty of the woodlands, the forest proves to be no safer than the concentration camp and the temporary home quickly becomes a prison as starving dogs from the camp lay siege to the dwelling, intent on getting inside.
On one level, the film works as an extreme and harrowing home-invasion tale where the victims are traumatized children and the attackers are vicious animals. The movie could also be viewed as an allegory about the effects of war on children and their loss of innocence. For me, the most intriguing aspect of Werewolf was the dynamic that develops among the youngsters as they forced to hone their survival skills quickly or perish.
Hanys (Nicolas Przygoda) emerges as a natural leader after thwarting a passing Russian soldier from raping Hanka. But his new popularity is resented by Wladek (Kamil Polnisiak), a quiet, nerdy-looking kid whose strange behavior and unusual interest in the dogs could possibly spell disaster for the group.
Despite a premise that could easily be mined for cheap thrills, Werewolf takes a less predictable direction and does not play out in conventional or expected ways. There are bizarre but highly appropriate detours along the way such as the discovery of a German soldier hiding in a nearby underground bunker or a sequence where the children get drunk on a bottle of moonshine. Best of all is the film’s almost upbeat finale which suggests that out of tragedy comes the promise of new beginnings.
A former documentary filmmaker working in television, Panek made his feature debut in 2011 with Daas, an 18th century period film about the arrival of a new messiah. Werewolf is his second film and it has garnered numerous awards and nominations in Europe. In addition to a tense, tautly-paced narrative, the film is distinguished by a cast of non-professional child actors who give remarkably believable, nuanced performances. Kamil Polnisiak as the troubled Wladek (he looks like an adolescent Hume Cronyn) is especially haunting in the film. The cinematography by Dominik Danilczyk is also a major asset and establishes the setting as a place of both unearthly beauty and unimaginable horror.
I recently saw Werewolf at the 15th Annual New York Polish Film Festival, May 22-24 (the film originally made its U.S. debut at the 2018 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas) and I hope Media Move, the distributor, will consider a wider release for Panek’s film outside of the film festival circuit. The film should please both genre enthusiasts and arthouse patrons with its blend of the realistic and the hallucinatory along with cinematic influences that range from Lord of the Flies and Cujo to Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds and Ivan’s Childhood aka My Name is Ivan directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Highly recommended.
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