'Werewolf' ('Wilkolak'): Film Review

Courtesy of Balapolis
Let slip the dogs of war.

A motley gang of Polish children fight for survival against man and beast in Adrian Panek's allegorical World War II thriller.

Evil stalks the forests of central Europe in Polish writer-director Adrian Panek's Werewolf, a thematically rich combination of coming-of-age drama, wartime thriller and horror movie. Headed by an ensemble cast of mostly nonprofessional child actors, Panek's second feature centers on a group of former concentration camp inmates thrown together in occupied Poland in the chaotic final weeks of World War II, with the Nazi regime in collapse as Russian forces push westward.

Winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize and Audience Award at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn last month, Werewolf is built on robust dramatic foundations. But while there are teasing echoes of Lord of the Flies and Red Riding Hood in the mix here, this Polish-German-Dutch co-production never quite delivers the killer shocks and allegorical layers that it initially seems to promise, perhaps because Panek ultimately skews more toward naturalistic human drama than supernatural fable. Even so, this grim fairy tale is original and gripping enough to merit niche theatrical interest, especially given its potential crossover appeal to diverse demographics.

Werewolf begins in the hellish setting of Gross-Rosen, a real complex of forced labor camps established by the Nazis in southwest Poland. Facing imminent defeat, the sadistic guards and their savage German shepherd dogs engage in a desperate final orgy of bloodshed against their prisoners, mostly Polish Jews. After the camp is liberated by the Red Army, eight surviving children are set free and deposited in a nearby semi-derelict mansion occupied by a single inhabitant, the wary and embittered Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka).

Nestled in a remote woodland, with no electricity and minimal food, this creepy makeshift orphanage presents the traumatized children with a fresh set of dangers. After Jadwiga dies in mysterious circumstances, 20-year-old Hanka (Sonia Mietielica) is reluctantly forced to take on den-mother duties. Because he was born near the German border, Hanys (Nicolas Przygoda) is cruelly nicknamed "Kraut" and ostracized by the others. Bespectacled nerd Wladek (Kamil Polnisiak) becomes his main rival for Hanka's attention, an unspoken buzz of budding sexual curiosity developing among the trio.

Meanwhile, deep in the woods, sinister forces are stirring. A passing Russian soldier attempts to rape Hanka, prompting a violent intervention from Wladek. A fugitive Nazi hides in a secret bunker, eyeing the children with malign intent. Bodies with their throats ripped open begin to litter the forest, victims of the killer dogs from the camp, now roaming wild and crazed by hunger. This slavering pack eventually surrounds the house and traps the children inside. Instead of fighting among themselves, these lost boys and girls are forced to fight for their survival together.

After a strong and suspenseful setup, Werewolf begins to suffer from slackening tension and narrative drift around the midway point. New subplots are woven into the main action almost randomly, failing to gain much dramatic traction. Only the lead trio of characters are fully developed, the rest remain sketchy. The interaction between children and dogs also lacks consistency, partly because the canine co-stars never appear beastly enough to fulfill their ravenous hellhound roles. Panek could have applied a little more imaginative vigor here, and a few more visual effects, to add some much-needed menace.

But even if Werewolf lacks bite as an allegorical horror thriller, it works pretty well as a psychological study of tender young minds struggling to relearn their humanity after years of brutal mistreatment by inhuman adults. The unschooled cast are unusually natural and convincing for child actors, and technical credits are generally superior. Dominik Danilczyk's painterly camerawork captures some sublimely bucolic vistas while Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz's chamber-orchestra score balances somber lyricism with an agreeably astringent modern-classical edge.

Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
Production company: Balapolis
Cast: Sonia Mietelica, Kamil Polnisiak, Nicolas Przygoda, Danuta Stenka
Director-screenwriter: Adrian Panek
Producers: Magdalena Kaminska, Agata Szymanska
Cinematographer: Dominik Danilczyk
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski
Music: Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz
Sales: Media Move, Warsaw

88 minutes