Atmospheric but very grim, Adrian Panek’s second feature length film is a well judged, suspenseful thriller that doubles as a subtle coming of age film. It’s slight, but packs an undeniable emotional punch.
After the liberation of concentration camps in Poland, a group of children is housed in an abandoned school. However, their peace is short lived, as they quickly find themselves under attack from the German guard dogs, which have gone mad from starvation. Stuck in the school with no chance of rescue, the children have to work out a way to escape the dogs before they succumb to starvation.
In lesser hands this subject matter could be awkward or tasteless, but it’s handled very sensitively by Panek. It never feels exploitative or trite, and the setting is used more as colour than for plot purposes. It almost feels like a Polish version of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, where the Spanish Civil War informed the film, but was never the focus of the story.
However, Werewolf can’t compete with the great ensemble child cast of The Devil’s Backbone. There are eight children, but we only get to know four of them half well. Of the polish children, Hanka (Sonia Mietielica) the oldest girl and defacto leader of the group, there’s also the creepy Wladek, (Kamil Polnisiak) and Dolly the youngest, a girl who hasn’t said a word the entire time they’ve been together. Finally there’s Hanys (Nicolas Pryzgoda) a German who finds himself an outcast among the children, despite putting himself at risk to help them. Apart from these four, the rest of the children tend to merge together. They are all believable, and look the part, but there isn’t enough in the script to differentiate them from one another.
Also, while Hanka and Hanys are given the most to do plot-wise, the only person who we really get a point of view from is Wladek, the most insular character in the film. Hanka is the most developed character, and Mietielica gives a great performance as an old beyond her years girl forced into the role of mother. While Hanys takes it upon himself to protect the others, Wladek is displaced, and doesn’t really have a role in the group. His passive face and inscrutable expressions are incredibly unnerving, and with his wire rimmed glasses he bears more than a passing resemblance to Himmler. He has an unhealthy obsession with Hanka, and a one sided rivalry with Hanys, who he perceives as stealing his place, constantly imagining murdering the German boy.
Unfortunately this sounds a lot more compelling than it is onscreen. All of this should lead to a dramatic standoff at some point, but instead it just fizzles out, and the rivalry and tension is never really addressed, which is odd coming after some incredibly tense set-pieces. It’s a shame because there is a lot of potential for drama here, and Polnisiak’s muted performance is intriguing, but none of this is never really explored.
The story itself is simple, and told without much in the way of exposition, which is refreshing. There’s no fat on the bones here, just a sleek, efficient thriller. It looks great, with muted colours and stark, crisp cinematography. It also gets the balance just right when it comes to the danger that the children are in; while the threat feels potent, it never tips into anything too gratuitous or unpleasant. Where it falls down is in the emotional resonance. Apart from the fact they’re children, there isn’t much time put in to making the characters relatable – it’s fortunate that the leads are so charismatic, because as written they are a bit dull.
Werewolf is a brilliant if bleak siege thriller, with beautiful cinematography and low key, subtle performances from all the child actors. What it lacks in characterisation it makes up for in atmosphere, and the result is a dark fable that is an instant genre classic.
The film looks incredible on this Blu Ray release, which is fortunate because there is very little in the way of special features. It comes with a very in-depth booklet about the film, but the Blu Ray itself is a bit sparse, with only a Trailer as an extra, which is unusual for Eureka, and a bit disappointing.