It's no exaggeration to say that World War II was a time of many horrors, but as the years have passed, storytellers have used the shocking, world-spanning conflict as the backdrop for many scary stories that go above and beyond the battlefield. There are a handful (well, enough movies to call it a subgenre) of horror movies set during this period, but they usually involve zombies ('Dead Snow', 'Overlord', 'Frankenstein's Army', etc), with very few approaching the setting with much subtlety or originality (Robert Schwentke's 'The Captain' is an exception).
Adrian Panek's 'Werewolf' is set at the end of World War II. The Nazi officers at Gross Rosen German concentration camp, in what is now south-western Poland, realise that Germany has lost the war and begin killing off their remaining prisoners with machine-gun fire and attack dogs. Two officers discover a barricaded room with trembling children inside. The kids survive, thanks to the keen observational abilities and survival instincts of glasses-wearing nerd Władek (Kamil Polnisiak),
After the camp is liberated, eight surviving children are left at a dilapidated mansion in the nearby woods, which serves as a temporary orphanage under the care of the jaded Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka).
When the adults leave, 20-year-old survivor Hanka (Sonia Mietielica) has no choice but to assume responsibility for the other seven children. They gradually begin to remember or learn what it's like to be human. There's very little food in the house, though, and watching the children licking dog food off the floor and devouring mouldering potatoes and insects is horrifying. Patrolling Russian soldiers are less interested in the welfare of the children as they are with drinking and menacing them. As they struggle for survival, teenage boys Władek and Hanys (Nicolas Przygoda), the sole German boy (derisively nicknamed Kraut by the other children), compete for Hanka's attention.
Meanwhile, a pack of bloodthirsty Alsatians from the concentration camp roams the surrounding forest, as wild and hungry as the children. Bodies with their throats ripped open start to appear. Soon, the kids are trapped inside the mansion, but with supplies running out, tensions boiling over and Nazi behaviours to repress; it's hard to tell whether the biggest threat comes from outside or within.
'Werewolf' is a werewolf film in much the same way that Michael Wadleigh's 'Wolfen' was a werewolf film - i.e. it isn't. Whereas 'Wolfen' is a killer dog story but also a strong, angry movie about ecological and human waste, 'Werewolf' illustrates how everyone was trying to work out how they fit into the chaos of a post-war countryside... including the flesh-eating hounds.
Adrian Panek's 'Werewolf' acts as an allegorical tale about the effects of forced discipline and learned cruelty on the mind of a child.
Less like the dumb genre fun of Alexandre Aja's 'Crawl' and more like a combination of Issa López's fable-ish 'Tigers Are Not Afraid' and 'Monos', Alejandro Landes's tale of child soldiers in Columbia, Panek's 'Werewolf' acts as an allegorical tale about the effects of forced discipline and learned cruelty on the mind of a child. Whilst the survivors try to re-establish a normal childhood, they can't shake the habits they have picked up to survive, like hiding extra food, beating a rat to death as part of a childish game, and mindless exercise regimes. They either have to work together to overcome the horror of the holocaust (embodied in the canine predators) or allow themselves to literally become trapped in the past.
The Polish/Dutch/German co-production was partly filmed in the Table Mountains, a mountain range in south-western Poland, in Panek's native region of Lower Silesia. Carefully designed and shot in dark greys and greens, it is an unquestionably good-looking film. The windblown forests and crumbling mansion, wild and solemn, are the perfect settings for confrontation and discovery. The use of makeup and costume gives the characters a genuinely haggard appearance, and the young cast is astounding - Panek's script never paints them as miniature adults.
A lot of care and craftsmanship have gone into Adrian Panek's film, instead of merely taking a gruesome premise and throwing it to the wolves. Combining wartime drama and survival horror, 'Werewolf' is a thoughtfully understated and quietly powerful film.
The Polish Film Festival runs from the 22nd November to the 1st December in Melbourne and 5th to the 8th December in Sydney. For screening details go to www.polishfilmfestival.com.au.