Werewolf (Wilkolak)

Poland (2018) Dir. Adrian Panek

As filmmakers continue to mine World War II for inspiration to tell stories either fictional or based on real events, Polish director Adrian Panek tries something a little different for his second film. No lycanthropes here I’m afraid, instead Panek looks at the post war struggle for normalcy for a group of former child prisoners.

Summer 1945, occupied Poland, and for a group of young children being held prisoner at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp freedom is upon them as Russian soldiers despatch the Nazis and liberate the camp. With nowhere else to go, the children are taken to a remote rundown mansion in the forest with only one inhabitant, a middle-aged, austere woman Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka).

With no water, electricity and the barest of rations to go around, life at the house isn’t that different from the camp except the children are no longer at the mercy of abusive Nazi captors. However, a different threat lies outside the house, a group of feral guard dogs released from the camp, trained to feast on human flesh and they’ve found their way to the house and are hungry.

Not quite a horror film but very much in the same vein as a quiet psychological chiller were dread awaits at every turn, Werewolf is an allegorical tale of survival by instinct, where the lines between human and animal are not so different. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean the kids turn into flesh eating beasts themselves but they are forced to eke out an existence on the merest terms and under any circumstances, like the wild animals that pursue them.

Panek presents us with a “out of the frying pan” tale for his young protagonists, their dreams of a better life after years of Nazi oppression essentially quashed by ending up in conditions only marginally better than camp Gross-Rosen. Jadwiga doesn’t offer much of a welcome for them, paying attention only to one very young mute girl and the oldest of the group Hanka (Sonia Mietielica).

Their first meal is a tin of dog food which they all fight over like dogs, laying the central metaphor blatantly bare yet not embarrassingly so since it has clearly been a while from the last time they saw meat. The next meal is a single piece of potato which they try to eat with bare hands, causing Hanka to berate them for not using cutlery like normal people.

As the oldest Hanka would have the clearest idea of the world they are hoping to return to and what adjustments are needed, whilst the younger ones presumably grew up in the camp thus don’t know any better. Only two boys closer to Hanka’s age, bespectacled Wladek (Kamil Polnisiak) and half-German Hanys (Nicolas Przygoda) aka Kraut, treated like an outsider until the troubles begin.

Wladek finds corpses of adult prisoners in the forest with their throats ripped out, then during a group walk, Jadwiga’s freshly savaged body is discovered and the kids retreat to the house followed by the culprits. Hanka now has to assume the guardian role but her first test doesn’t come from the dogs or the other kids in her charge.

Nazi soldiers who evaded Russian capture are in the area, one hiding in a nearby lair, which Wladek discovers and steal provisions from, while two others take over the house. With Hanka being of age, she becomes the target of the younger soldier but he doesn’t count on a golf club wielding Kraut to interrupt his plans. His colleague fares worse, suffering an ironic death at the hands of a mauling by his former guard dogs.

During the course of this brisk outing, just 88-minutes long, Panek quietly slips in little reminders of what the kids’ prior lives as prisoners via some rather adult behaviour. For instance, Kraut scars his arm trying to scrape off the prisoner number tattoo and making a mess of it. Another permanent reminder of their incarceration is the lack of fresh clothing, leaving the kids with just their striped prisoner shirts to wear.

Returning to normal life seems a distant dream for the kids, and Panek’s script sees the younger ones unaware of the gravity of the situation while the others think of nothing else. The key is getting along and working towards the same goal but some are keeping secrets from the others, but to what end is the mystery.

It is all tantalising but Panek seems to run out of steam an hour in, partly through not being able to sustain the suspense of the dog attacks on the house, and partly from not giving the whole cast room to develop. Most of the children aren’t even named, nor are their genders even clearly established, a by-product of the brutal uniform short haircuts from the camp.

There are some effectively tense moments of the dogs attacking, making good use of POV camera angles when chasing after the youngsters. Another heart-stopping scene involves Wladek in the Nazi soldier’s liar as he hides, inches from him yet neither aware of the other’s presence. Everything is beautifully shot with no shortage of picturesque tableau, from the bucolic vistas of the forest to the drab greyness of the house.

Panek entrusts the junior roles to a mostly inexperienced cast, all of whom rise to the challenge in portraying the fear, hope, and naivety of their callow minds in response to their plight with requisite naturalism. Sonia Mietielica is the only professional among the youngsters, fitting in nicely aesthetically whilst doing the dramatic heavy lifting.

Werewolf may not be an outright horror film but in not shying away from depicting the psychological horrors of war, it has the feel of one. The symbolism is hardly subtle but not enough to lessen the impact of the story, whilst a little more depth to the characters and a stronger final act would have elevated this. Panek is certainly an assured director however and definitely one to watch out for.