I’m ashamed to say that I know very little about Poland. I know nothing about the arts, the culture, the history, or the people. I once knew a woman of Polish descent, but that would be a bit like me saying I’m of German descent… theoretically true, but practically pointless. All I know for sure is that it’s a fiendish language to learn, and there’s a shelf or two of Polish groceries in our local Asda. I do know there was a lot of suffering and turmoil in Poland around WWII.
Werewolf (Wilkołak) is an intense and, at times, brutal study of one of those episodes. It opens towards the end of WWII in Groß-Rosen concentration camp; a real place in what is now Rogoźnica, in Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland.
The German guards know the end of the war is approaching, and are “cleaning house” before they attempt to run off and escape the approaching allied troops — in this case Russians. They are quite emotionless as they move through the prisoners, killing them either by shooting them or setting the guard dogs on them.
Survival At Any Cost
As one of the guards moves through the camp, making sure there are no survivors, he comes to a dormitory with children in it. Before he can do anything, one of the older boys shouts out a command that he’d heard being given to one of the dogs, and then carries out the action. Before long he is barking out, I think, “stand” and “lie down,” and all the children are performing the manoeuvres.
With this the guards start laughing at them, and we cut to the Russians entering the camp which is littered with dead bodies which the hungry dogs are feeding off.
A bewildered Russian soldier moves through the rat-infested dormitories until he finds the room with the children in, still doing their movements, but now with differing levels of exhaustion. Next, they’re in the back of an army truck and being taken to an abandoned mansion in the countryside, surrounded by forest and left in the care of Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka). She sums up the bigger picture they’re facing with the line, “It’s Poland now, but it’s just drunken Russians and starving Germans all around.” In short, “we’re free now, but that just means we’ve something different to fear.”
So, Is It A Horror Film Then?
The trailer seems to give the impression that the title Werewolf is descriptive of the genre of the film… jump cuts involving running children and snapping jaws lead you to thinking the woods surrounding the house must contain something that gets feisty around the full moon.
Instead it turns out that there is something much more frightening… a group of children! I taught in secondary schools for fifteen years and I know that bands of feral children are something to be scared of.
Unfortunately, some people have left reviews that just show they were taken in and confused by the title. Whilst not being able to speak Polish or knowing any Polish colloquialisms, I do know people who I can ask. And it appears that, while Wilkołak does translate as Werewolf, there is another meaning — wolf cub or baby wolf — which moves the focus away from the snapping jaws and over to the group of kids.
We’re dealing less with The Wolfman and more with Lord Of The Flies. The children, frankly, is where the focus should be. The young cast are all excellent. Actually the whole cast are, but it’s the youngsters who steal the show. Many are relative newcomers, but some are probably quite well known back home.
Oh… as a bonus for people who don’t like subtitles, there’s not a huge amount of dialogue to worry about.
Werewolf (Wilkołak) is probably not what you might expect, but it is definitely worth a look.
Movie Grade: B
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