Dir.: Adrian Panek; Cast: Kamil Polnisak, Sonia Mietielica, Danuta Stenka, Nicolas Przygoda; Poland/Netherlands/Germany 2018, 88 min
Inspired by real-life, historical events, writer and director Adrian Panek turns the nightmare of the Holocaust onto a motley group of children who are still alive in the last knockings of the war. One-part survival horror, one-part wartime thriller with a dash of coming-of-age drama, Werewolf is an unconventional yet haunting contemporary dark fable. But its use of young Concentration Camp survivors – in what is basically a horror film featuring vicious German Shepherd dogs – is rather questionable.
In the final days before liberation by the Red Army, the guards in the Gross-Rosen Camp in South-west Poland kill some of the survivors, others are bitten to death by the Alsatians. Young Wladek (Polnisak) is a prisoner who ingratiates himself with the guards, voluntarily throwing himself to the ground and jumping up shouting Auf (Up) and Nieder (down), to please his masters. After he survives along with seven much younger children, they are taken to the the sinister cottage belonging to enigmatic Jadwiga (Stenka) deep in the woods where Jadwiga is killed under mysterious circumstances. The children soon start to run out of food but are forced to remain in the remote house under the leadership of twenty-year old Hanka (Mietielica), due to the wild dogs circling outside, baying for blood. When one of the invading Russian soldiers tries to rape Hanka – with the clear acquiescence of Wladek who is jealous that Hanka prefers the outsider Hanys (Przygoda) to him – he saves the young woman. Wladek seems to be able to communicate with the dogs, before Hanys removes his striped uniform, making the dogs obey him.
Panek clearly objectifies the survivors, with Wladek becoming more mean as the films goes on. Survival depends on living by their wits and the victims cannily comply with their captors. But Werewolf goes a step further, and denounces Wladek as completely wicked. Unfortunately, many Poles were complicit in the murder of their Jewish countrymen – one estimate by the historian Grabowski talks of over 200 000 cases, ending with the deportation or death of Jews. But between the liberation of 1944 and 1946, over 2000 Jews, often Camp survivors, were murdered by Poles – some forty at the first post-war pogrom in Kielce in July 1946. The nationalist government of today has tried to block out any discussion, making it a crime to speak about Polish collaboration, before rescinding the law. Panek’s treatment of Wladek and the other survivors (relegating them to fairground objects) is just another example of the difficulty Poland has with its Jewish history. AS
Werewolf is out on 30 September 2019 (UK & Ireland)
Nationwide from 20 September 2019