Writer and director Adrian Panek brings us Werewolf (Wilkołak in its native Polish), set toward the end of the Second World War.
In February 1945, Allied Forces are liberating the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps. One of these, Wolfsberg, is in chaotic freefall as its murderous officials know the end is near. After the intervention of the Russian Army, eight children are taken to a remote abandoned mansion in Poland, which serves as a temporary orphanage – their parents having all been killed at other camps.
Under the sole care of Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka), the children try to adjust to their freedom until help arrives. But it soon becomes apparent that this won’t happen, since the woodland surrounding the house is populated by creatures that have killed the soldiers who left them there. The children become trapped indoors with no running water, food dwindling and tension rising by the hour. One way or another, this can’t go on for long…
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So the children are starving inside the house while the monsters are ravenous outside. Both are desperate to survive, the only difference being that the hounds aren’t turning on each other. The film is more a dark survival thriller than outright horror, but Panek certainly borrows from the gory supernatural in bringing his threat to life. And while the title isn’t as literal as audiences might expect, it’s still wholly relevant to the text of the film.
With its subjects imprisoned for a second time, the storyline necessarily ramps up a sense of claustrophobia. The drunken Russian soldiers evoke an inherent distrust of authority akin to 28 Days Later, while the internal group dynamics here are closer to The Secret Of Marrowbone than Lord Of The Flies. But that’s not to say the threat within the walls is any easier to deal with than the one outside.
The youngest of these characters would only have known life in the camps, separated from their parents for who knows how long. They have little to no idea how to function now, not savages but ill disciplined and impetuous. The older ones meanwhile are emerging into a world they barely remember that’s still unsafe, and are facing the rollercoaster of puberty with no guidance. It would be easy to make the children brattish, but instead Panek brings a very sympathetic portrayal of even the most unlikeable members of group. Ultimately it’s only their humanity which can save them.
Although it’s performed in Polish (with German and Russian from the soldiers as appropriate), Werewolf is very economically scripted with a show-don’t-tell approach, meaning the subtitles never become a distraction. Panek gets outstanding performances from his players, a triumph of writing, direction and of course acting (not least due to the potentially harrowing preparations required by a cast this young). There are particularly strong turns from Sonia Mietielica (Spies of Warsaw), Nicolas Przygoda (Panic Attack) and Kamil Polnisiak (who debuts here).
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In a work this delicate there are pitfalls, however. We only really get to know half of the children, and with a pool this small that seems negligent for characters the audience are supposed to be rooting for. Because they’re not counted-in during the first act, it’s difficult to keep track of how many of our heroes there are, and who’s missing at any point.
Additionally, the film’s ending seems to resolve everything a little too neatly. While it certainly works in terms of the character arcs and subtext, in practical terms this feels a little on-the-nose. But at only 88 minutes, Werewolf is surprisingly well paced with plenty of room to breathe.
It feels odd describing a piece with so much growling, barking and screaming as ‘quiet’, but there we are. Werewolf is as introspective as it is fraught, and reminds us that the real monsters don’t always live in the woods…