The horrors of war and the terror of childhood fantasy combine in Werewolf, a dark survivalist story from Poland.
There have been quite a few straight-up fantasy explorations of war and its aftermath in film: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and the Finnish film Sauna (2008), spring to mind, to name just two. It’s a technique which seems to allow filmmakers to examine aspects of warfare in a wholly new light, teasing out new emotional states or seeing a well-known context in a new, untrammelled way. And I’ll admit, this is what I half-expected from a film entitled ‘Werewolf’. Whilst the film definitely does examine war in a new way, it’s not a fantasy film, although it has some nightmarish, dark fairy tale aspects. Nor is it quite a home invasion film, though it has aspects of that, too. It’s a genre-challenging piece of film altogether, a coming-of-age story which has remarkably little in the way of redemption.
The year is 1945: the Nazis, having lost the war, are in the process of liquidating the Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp in Poland. A lot of unaccompanied children and adolescents, seeing the fate of many of the adults, seem desperate to win favour with the remaining Nazis (not wanting to be shot is a great motivator). They begin performing their drill exercises unbidden; their terror keeps them at it long after the laughing Nazis have withdrawn and the Red Army has arrived. The Reds offer assistance to these survivors, but it’s a bit of a feeble rescue, as the children are taken to an abandoned villa and left there. There’s an older woman, Jadwiga, who attempts to look after them – but there’s no running water, no food and no electricity. Also, it’s clear, despite some grotesque moments of levity (given a game which involves stamping a rat to death) that these children have been gravely damaged by their time in the camp.
This would all be trauma enough, and this could have been a film simply examining what happens to an isolated community of Polish children left to fend for themselves. I feel sure that director and writer Adrian Panek could have made a grim success of this. However, here is where the film begins to lean more towards its fantasy, horror and survivalist elements. A pack of ravening, very hungry dogs who have been abandoned by their SS masters has found its way to the house. They begin to lay in wait for the children, as they also try to find their way into the house itself. These are just dogs, although one of the children shares a rumour that these are the SS officers themselves, transformed into werewolves. Regardless, this is a simple and effective source of dread: children are no match for these trained, if now semi-feral guard dogs, and the prospect of escape now comes down to a very dangerous battle of wills between human – themselves now animalistic – and animal.
Each child tries to cope with their lot in a subtly different way. Some of the younger children begin scrapping over whatever food they have; one of the children becomes mute; one of the boys (‘Kraut’) seems ever-ready to break out into action and violence. But perhaps the most ambiguous characterisation here belongs to Wladek (Kamil Polnisiak), the boy who initiated the unasked-for drill back at the camp. He often seems to be in a kind of stasis, simply observing what is going on around him, even if this means standing by as horrific things happen, or almost happen. He is sly, vigilant and potentially dangerous; whatever he bottles up inside almost finds outlet on several occasions, meaning that he is often a profoundly unlikeable boy. But the point is made that this is what war and hardship can do; if you don’t always like Wladek, you can appreciate why he is the way he is. I think there’s still a kind of bravery to that, as so often British and American writing finds it necessary to redeem the ‘good guys’ in a fairly obvious manner. My experience of Polish cinema so far teaches me that there’s no such impulse in Polish film; if people are awful, let them be awful, but let them be shown in a clear light.
The whole film seethes with an ominous atmosphere throughout. This derives from the film’s central theme of starvation, and the lengths to which people and animals will go to in order to end this particular suffering. Linked to this is the film’s secondary theme, of access – whether to places, people or knowledge. Given the weakened physical condition of these children, their only hope is to use their mental faculties to survive, and this means accessing places in the house, places outside, or the ability to work around the dogs outside, waiting for them. Moments of genuinely unsettling peril do give way to more positive moments, and ‘the switch’ in fortunes here is pure Polish catharsis – and deservedly so.
Economy is key in Werewolf, and this is a well-made, involved examination of WWII’s aftermath, refracted through a small cast and a limited setting. As such, it is able to offer an often-excruciating level of detail which really does represent the post-Holocaust world differently, with a different kind of emphasis.