Werewolf is a Polish World War II thriller about eight children who have escaped from a concentration camp and are hiding in a secluded villa to avoid the bloodthirsty hounds that have been released by the SS officers before their retreat.
Summer of 1945. A temporary orphanage is established in an abandoned palace surrounded by forests for the eight children liberated from the Gross-Rosen camp. Hanka, also a former inmate, becomes their guardian. After the atrocities of the camp, the protagonists slowly begin to regain what is left of their childhood, but the horror returns quickly. Camp Alsatians roam the forests around. Released by the SS earlier on, they have gone feral and are starving. Looking for food they besiege the palace. The children are terrified and their camp survival instinct is triggered.
Inspired by real-life, historical events, writer and director Adrian Panek turns the nightmare of the Holocaust into literal monsters. One-part survival horror, one-part wartime thriller with a dash of coming-of-age drama, Werewolf is an unconventional, yet beautifully haunting contemporary dark fable.
Werewolf works best as a psychological drama with the children having escaped the initial trauma of the Nazi camps, they still find themselves fighting for survival in addition to trying to adjust to a life in the outside world. They may be hunted and trapped by the dogs, but in some ways this becomes a sub plot of the overall main story, which deals with the psychological effects the camps have had on the survivors. The children themselves range from infants to early teens and deliver some powerful performances, reflecting both the emotional trauma and desperation, creating an often-evocative vision regarding the effects of war. Despite their childlike innocence, having been imprisoned in such condition has had an impact, there is also a coldness to their personalities which makes it difficult to adjust to the normalities of the outside world.
Having been living in the squalid conditions of the camp and an obvious malnutrition they display a desperation and often feral like instincts when it comes to food. Trapped with nothing left to eat, out of desperation, some of the children eventually decide to gorge greedily on discarded potato peelings, despite knowing it is likely to cause sickness. In another powerful scene, due to dehydration, the kids take to sucking desperately on a damp wall in an attempt to alleviate their thirst with any moisture they can obtain.
When they find themselves with no parental control it is the three eldest who assume responsibility over the group, with initial perceptions and priorities of the three continuing to change throughout. Sonia Mietielica is excellent as Hanka, who with lack of adult supervision, is forced into a mothering role, whilst Nicolas Przygoda naturally undertakes a leadership role, despite initally planning to abandon the group. The most memorable performance however is from Kamil Polnisiak as Wladek, who through jealousy and self-motivation delivers a disturbingly sinister performance. There is an uncertainty with his actions which creates a continuous tension whenever he is on screen. Sometimes it is clearly for personal gain, whilst others the end motive is uncertain. There is an impression that he has been impacted by the camp and somewhat desensitised to the violence. A scene where he sees an attempted rape and instead of helping decides to close the door whilst smiling at the aggressor creates one of the film’s most disturbing and menacing images.
As you may already be aware, despite the film’s title, the film does not include any werewolves in the term traditionally, although with the breeding and conditioning of the German Shepherds whose actions unsupervised are dangerously feral, you can understand why the term was used. To add emphasis to the term werewolf, after being attacked by the dogs one of the younger children innocently asks whether all the Nazi soldiers had been turned into werewolves. And following the ongoing atrocities to which they have witnessed, this is probably an understandable assumption.
Despite dealing with an initial mass slaughter in the camp and a number of deaths throughout the film, there isn’t much violence or blood shown on screen, although the aftermath still has an impact. At times the images of bodies, especially within the mass graves of the camp, create an ingraining which is probably more powerful than the image of seeing the actual killings.
There are several scenes throughout the film where the children find themselves facing the dogs and come under attack. These scenes are extremely tense and brilliantly choreographed, especially when you consider there’s no CGI or quick editing tricks. With several scenes you wouldn’t have been surprised if someone was accidentally bitten by a dog. One moment is particularly tense when they offer a hand to try and reason with the dog.
Werewolf is a brilliant psychological drama which skilfully drifts into horror, with the monsters of the film portrayed both with a ruthlessness of the Nazi’s, the threat of dogs outside and from those within. For some viewers it may not be the harrowing journey or the creature style horror they were hoping for, but with brilliant execution it creates something a lot more powerful and moving.