Adrian Panek’s war-time thriller Werewolf may not be sufficiently sensitive to history to earn the approval of all audiences. It is a bleak and viscerally bloody combination of horror movie and Holocaust drama: very good at what it does, but what it’s doing is definitely for a niche audience. It comes packed with potential psychological triggers, including Nazi Germany, brutal scenes of starving attack dogs, and children in peril. Caveat emptor.
1945. Nazi forces are retreating across Poland, liquidating concentration camps as they go. When the Russian army discovers a small group of Jewish children alive in one of the camps – traumatised, malnourished, and filthy – they drop them off at an isolated mansion in the woods without food, electricity, or running water. Seemingly abandoned, the children look for resources to survive. They discover a pack of hungry dogs, abandoned by the Germans, have made the mansion their home as well.
The sheer audacity of Panek’s film pretty much guarantees it is going to get a mixed reception. Political and moral sensitivities over presentations of the Holocaust are justifiably delicate: it is a mass tragedy on a scale with few rivals, and is already for better or worse fodder for award bait Hollywood dramas on a seemingly annual schedule. In that respect Werewolf is arguably a more responsible treatment: war is hell, children and animals are collateral damage, and antisemitism does not begin and end with Nazis. This film is violent, bloody, and absolutely nerve-shredding. That underlying sense one gets from commercial American cinema that the film is going to play it safe, and that no filmmaker is going to actually portray a child savaged to death by wild dogs, is entirely absent from Panek’s work here. It instinctively feels dangerous.
The film is also surprisingly complex for something with such a direct, visceral premise. One would think the Russian soldiers liberating concentration camp victims would provide for them with food and medical care – but they do not. In fact, they threaten to engage in even worse behaviour. One would also think that once the line of conflict has passed, the Nazis would no longer pose a threat – they could still be peppered all over the countryside in bunkers and boltholes. One would think the children at least would stick together in a crisis, and take care for one another. They do not. One of them, nicknamed “Kraut” (Nicolas Przygoda), is not a Polish jew but a German one. Another, Wladek (Kamil Polnisiak), not only seems as ready to surrender Kraut to the dogs as he would any other German but also hides an increasingly worrisome secret. The cast mostly comprises children making their professional debuts, and they perform their roles brilliantly. Trying to corral the group and keep them alive is teenager Hanka (an excellent Sonia Mietielica), who is forced to put her own traumas aside for the sake of her young companions.
Standard phrases about thrillers and horror films, such as ‘white-knuckle’ and ‘edge-of-your-seat’, are so over-used as to be meaningless. That is a shame, because they are precisely the kind of terms that are absolutely justified here. Werewolf is an incredibly tense and harrowing film. It balances its audience somewhere between terror and despair, and the outcome is wide open up to its final frame. At the same time I can see its basic presence shut it off from a massive slice of its audience: if you do not like the sound of spinning additional horrors off from the Holocaust, or endangering child characters, or even life-or-death struggles against hungry animals, this is really the sort of film you may wish to avoid – and not for one second would I blame you.