The Movie Waffler Dublin International Film Festival 2019 Review - WEREWOLF | The Movie Waffler

Dublin International Film Festival 2019 Review - WEREWOLF

werewolf polish movie review
Following the liberation of their concentration camp, a group of Jewish children find themselves under siege from the camp's guard dogs.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Adrian Panek

Starring: Kamil Polnisiak, Nicolas Przygoda, Sonia Mietielica, Danuta Stenka, Werner Daehn

werewolf poster

If Polish writer/director Adrian Panek's WWII 'Animal Attacks' siege thriller Werewolf were made in an English speaking territory, it would likely be the most talked about piece of 'problematic' cinema of the year, given how it takes the setting of the Holocaust as a backdrop for what is essentially a man vs nature horror movie. That the humans under siege are children makes it all the more difficult to digest. Yet despite what seems on the surface like a cynically exploitative genre movie designed to shock, Panek's film is ultimately, perhaps miraculously, a sensitive and compassionate drama.

Opening amid the horrors of the Nazis' evacuation of a concentration camp in Poland, with children lined up and shot or savaged by guard dogs, Werewolf lets you know from the off that it's not going to be an easy watch. When Russian soldiers arrive to liberate the camp, they find a small group of children - a mix of Jews and gypsies - huddled together. The kids are brought to a nearby crumbling mansion and left in the care of its occupant, Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka), once a member of the Polish gentry, now living on a diet of rationed potatoes.

werewolf polish movie review

When a pair of Russian soldiers arrive, the children find themselves once again facing terror. Jadwiga is killed and the eldest of the children, Hanka (Sonia Mietielica), is almost raped, saved by the intervention of the eldest boy, Hanys (Nicolas Przygoda). Having fought off this human threat, the children now find themselves trapped in the mansion when the camp's guard dogs surround the house, hungry for meat.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - The King ]

Much like the eponymous pooch of Samuel Fuller's controversial but perceptive White Dog, the dogs in question here have had prejudice transferred to them by their human masters, trained to attack the inhabitants of the camp. To survive, the children must figure out a way of either physically overpowering the dogs, or rewiring the bigotry the animals have had implanted in them.

werewolf polish movie review

This might be a rather on the nose examination of the psychology of prejudice and how society deals with dangerous ideas, but it's certainly an allegory I haven't seen before, and Panek is willing to risk his film being dismissed as distasteful and exploitative to make his point. Initially I was somewhat troubled that Panek would position animals as the antagonists of a story set in the midst of one of the greatest human atrocities, but such fears were relieved when it becomes clear that his villainous mutts are themselves merely products of humanity's worst elements.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Joker ]

Unlike the average killer animal thriller, Werewolf doesn't simply ask us to root for the destruction of its animal threat. It isn't so much man vs nature as man vs nature as victims of human nature, and the dogs are far more sympathetic than any of the adult humans we encounter here. Even the children themselves aren't portrayed as simple heroic figures. There are divisions and prejudices among their own group, with some keeping secrets from the others in an attempt to assure their own survival, and one child in particular may pose as great a threat to the group as the dogs that roam outside. Much like the dogs, the children will need a lot of retraining to adjust to a world that no longer enslaves them.

werewolf polish movie review

Plotwise, Werewolf doesn't quite hold together as well as it should. At one point a child figures out the dogs are driven into a rage by his concentration camp pyjamas, yet we've already seen the dogs attack humans who weren't clad in that outfit. At times, Panek's allegories and allusions are a little too blunt, like when Hanys discovers a chest containing a red dress, at once an eye-rolling nod to both Schindler's List and Red Riding Hood. Another couple of passes at the script might have tightened up its plot inconsistencies and made Panek realise how mixed his metaphors were in danger of becoming.

Despite such niggling issues and an overall bleak tone that will likely prove too overbearing for many viewers, Werewolf is a rugged and well directed thriller, an Eastern European cousin of the tough horror movies produced by independent American cinema in the Vietnam era. And in a market saturated with prestige Holocaust dramas that are often unwilling to get their hands dirty, Werewolf isn't afraid to portray the true horrors of that chapter of European history. The image of starving and dehydrated children licking condensation from a wall will haunt me for some time.

Werewolf is in UK/ROI cinemas October 4th.

2019 movie reviews