Suspenseful yet never exploitative, this tale of young Holocaust survivors focuses on the human capacity for hope and compassion in a world filled with hate. Part of Dundee Contemporary Arts’ Dundead Horror Film Festival, Adrian Panek’s WEREWOLF (WILKOLAK) depicts the horrors of war in this low-key survival thriller.
Liberated from a Polish concentration camp, a small group of Jewish children are left in a derelict mansion in the remote woods. They are forced to put their differences aside when besieged by a bloodthirsty pack of German attack dogs.
The film opens at the gates of hell: It is the last days of World War II and the Nazis of Gross-Rosen revel in one final act of torture. On the verge of defeat, they execute their prisoners like cattle in a horrific disregard for human life. Two soldiers mock the young protagonists who partake in a rigorous exercise drill as a desperate means of entertaining their oppressors in the hope they will be spared. The scene is depicted as a nightmarish circus, with gunshots and bizarre jazz music ringing out, the guards drunk on their own vile mentality.
What could have been a cheap genre thriller intended merely to shock is handled with enough sensitivity that the film never feels like it is exploiting one of the worst tragedies of history. Panek manages the difficult task of building sufficient tension while also documenting the effects of brutal captivity.
“What could have been a cheap genre thriller intended merely to shock is handled with enough sensitivity that the film never feels like it is exploiting one of the worst tragedies of history.”
Swapping supernatural scares for human drama, WEREWOLF might not provide the thrills to satisfy the most diehard of horror fans, but those seeking a thoughtful depiction of victims struggling to readjust to normal life will be rewarded. A clear allegory for PTSD, the film could act as an introduction to the Holocaust for the more mature members of a young audience.
Like the feral dogs which also escape the camp, the children become their own wild pack. They fight among each other, scrambling on the floor for a can of dog food until a bucket of water poured over their heads calms them into submission. Hanka (Sonia Mietielica), the oldest of the group and de facto leader, scolds them for eating with their hands instead of cutlery. She refuses to be seen as an animal any longer but the children’s behaviour implies it will be a slow return to normality.
While the young cast all give natural performances, Mietielica in particular is a natural leader. The despondent look in her eyes as she feigns a smile for the others conveys great resilience. The scars on her wrists act almost as a badge of honour as opposed to Hanys’ (Nicolas Przygoda) failed attempt to scratch off his tattooed serial number. Despite their mutual suffering, seeds of distrust are sown through the group until they come to realise they must work together if they are to escape their torment.
When it comes to the titular hounds from hell, their appearance isn’t quite as vicious as some might like. However, this may be intentional. After all, the dogs are simply pawns for the Nazis – casualties of war driven to desperate hostility. Finding common ground may be the only way both parties will survive.
“WEREWOLF might not provide the thrills to satisfy the most diehard of horror fans, but those seeking a thoughtful depiction of victims struggling to readjust to normal life will be rewarded.”
The film is not without flaws. Not all of the characters are well developed, with some unceremoniously killed off to further the group’s isolation. The sole adult residing in the mansion is a woman named Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka) who is both mysterious and compassionate. Her appearance provokes curiosity – her short hair with the occasional bald patch brings to mind the punishment for women who slept with German soldiers.
What could have been an explanation for her own isolation is left unknown, and it is a shame her character was not further explored. In spite of this, WEREWOLF is a tense and thoughtful allegory of war featuring strong performances and accomplished camerawork that glides through the woods like an unseen predator stalking its prey.