VOD film review: Werewolf (2019)
Mark Harrison | On 15, Oct 2019
Director: Adrian Panek
Cast: Nicolas Przygoda, Kamil Polnisiak, Sonia Mietielica, Danuta Stenka, Werner Daehn
Watch Werewolf online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / BFI Player / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
Taking place after the liberation of the Gross-Rosen camp, Werewolf finds a group of young survivors holed up in a run-down temporary orphanage in the Polish countryside. With no electricity or running water and very little food to go around, Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka) and teenaged inmate Hanka (Sonia Mietielica) have to keep their wards safe and fed. However, the situation worsens when a pack of feral dogs emerge from the forest, confining them to their derelict sanctuary with little hope of escape.
In any film that leans on young characters, the child actors’ performances are paramount, and that’s the one aspect in which Werewolf goes above and beyond. Beyond the excellent performances of the junior ensemble, Nicolas Przygoda is great as “Kraut”, an ostracised German inmate (jokingly referred to as a “Wehr-wolf” early on) who proves to be the bravest of the bunch and Mietielica gives an eye-catching turn as the kids’ reluctant guardian.
But the real standout here is Kamil Polnisiak as Wladek, whose traumatic experiences have made him a more challenging character, rather than a sympathetic one. The teen seldom speaks, except to echo the commands of his former captors to others, and his eerie performance makes for a compelling contrast with his co-stars – he’s a major European star in the making.
Sadly, the film isn’t quite up to the strength of the young cast’s performances. It starts promisingly, segueing out of a brutal opening sequence inside Gross-Rosen to the film’s main setting, then building the suspense and landing a couple of strong jump scares. But once the canine crisis gets going, the film proves to be less consequential than its parts would suggest.
Particularly in the second half, the film seems to go on shuffle for a while. There will be a scene of the kids drinking from a moist wall, then a kid checking the windows only for a dog to appear, then kids eating discarded potato peelings, and while it all builds a picture, these scenes could go in any order and it seems like they have just been crassly thrown together.
As the title suggests, some of the kids fear that the dogs are lupine versions of the SS guards who are still at large, and writer-director Adrian Panek plays up that ambiguity for so long that its final ruminations on nature, nurture, and the banality of evil feel a little ham-fisted. Taken all together, the tall tale that Panek chooses to tell only makes the difficult, unflinching opening feel more exploitative than earned.
The children’s superb performances lend the film some gravity, yet disturbing and challenging though it often is, the film is strangely vacant. Less than the sum of its considerable parts, it lurches between being a lean, mean thriller and a post-war fable with less grace than the subject matter warrants.