Werewolf: “Grimmer than the average WWII holocaust drama”
Unlike what the title implies, Adrian Panek’s Werewolf (Wilkolak) isn’t a supernatural horror movie. It’s a cross between a World War Two Holocaust drama by way of Cujo or White Dog. I think what Panek is trying to emphasise with the title that pure evil doesn’t come from something alien, rather it comes from the opposite of alien – evil exists in humans. Prime example being the evil immorality of the people who instigated the Holocaust. The best person to ask about this is Terry Gilliam who once said that he didn’t see Darth Vader as the epitome of evil because Jack Lint (Michael Palin) [from Brazil], who looks like you’re average kindly father figure, better suits that word since he is conducting horrifying experiments behind his family’s back. Panek is coming from the same standpoint as Gilliam – Werewolf drowns itself in dread to make this frightful point.
Initially set at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, the Nazis are killing the prisoners before the Russians arrive to liberate the camp. However, they spare a group of youths, ranging from school-age to late teenagers. The Nazis find the children “entertaining” as they do push-ups to the sound of barking orders from their leader. The Russians take the children under their wings and leave them at an abandoned orphanage in the middle of nowhere. The owner of the manor, Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka), vows to bring the children back to “normality” after seeing unspeakable horrors at the camp. At first, this seems quite the task – some of the children are too young to understand what the word “normal” means. However, the horrors soon return: a pack of Alsatian dogs from the Gross-Rosen camp surround the manor. With hardly any food or water, the children must survive these impossible odds.
The children behave as you would expect: most of them have been left to their devices and become feral. As soon as the children step of the truck, they violently stomp rats into the ground. They also eat potato peelings from a bucket because there is no food. If you can learn one thing from Werewolf, it’s the struggle to repair the broken minds of children caused by years of brutal treatment at the Holocaust. Unfortunately, Werewolf loses its character focus midway through the 88-minute runtime. I commend Panek for letting the character’s actions do the talking for much of the film. However, there’s only so much you can stomach when the atmosphere is this dark and grim, and Panek doesn’t paint these children in a compassionate light. There’s a massive sense of distrust in the film, and I can’t root for these children to survive because, as awful as this sounds, they are mostly vacant husks (aside from 20-year-old Hanka who mothers the remaining children, wonderfully performed by Sonia Mietielica).
Werewolf struggled to invest me once it gets into thriller mode. The main problem going into Werewolf is that once you hear the plot summary, you do think “is this going to be tasteless that the back-drop of one of mankind’s worst atrocities is being used for a horror man-vs-nature story?”. Something about Werewolf feels disjointed. Unlike László Nemes’s breakout debut, Son of Saul, which is purposefully restraining you from seeing the horrors of camp through its use of narrow depth of field, Werewolf opts for a wide-screen look once the ravenous canines feast on its characters. Werewolf feels misjudged. By all means, make a survival thriller. But be considerate when placing characters into a story who are victims of the awful machine that was the Holocaust. They don’t deserve added bloodshed when they’ve been through hell.
I don’t think Werewolf is a waste of time, but I won’t lie that I found this problematic. This is getting a cinematic release from Eureka Entertainment, so no doubt that Panek’s second feature will eventually appear on their Montage Pictures Blu-Ray range sometime next year. Until then, I think this film is worth giving a shot as with all Montage releases. To Panek’s credit, I do think he has good intentions: much of Werewolf’s atmosphere is appropriately menacing, and the production value is through the roof. Needless to say, it didn’t leave me entertained, unfortunately, it left me frustrated.