The Wolf House
2020, NR, 73 min. Directed by Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León. Voices by Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 29, 2020
It's pretty clear at this point in cinema history that the auteur theory - that one voice creates everything in a movie - is bunk. The sole exception (or the still-no-cigar closest) in this collaborative art is the animator, who has the greatest control over a wholly immersive world. The question when it comes to dark political allegory The Wolf House is how long you want to stay in that world, even if it is well-constructed.
The script, by directors Cociña and León, with Alejandra Moffat, reaches into a dark corner of Chilean history. The Colonia Dignidad was a religious commune run by a benevolent, if eccentric, German migrant, or at least that's how it appeared to the outside world. Behind its barbed wire fences, the compound made Warren Jeff's FLDS Church seem like harmless local cranks: Abducted children were drugged and sexually abused, and Augusto Pinochet's death squads took dissidents there to torture, maim, and kill, far away from prying eyes. There's a knowing nod to that complicity in the opening sequence, with an introductory note that the film - designed to rehabilitate the reputation of the fictional "Colony" - was paid for in part by the Chilean government.
The film is posited as a kind of animated found footage, restored by Cociña and León. It's a fascinating concept, even if it seems to stretch its own logic pretty rapidly. Why would the Commune create this story that so clearly shows them as monsters? Nominally, because they are waiting for a lost member, a young blonde girl named Maria, to return to the fold with the two pigs she has lost. Yet, in true Middle European fairy tale form, she has taken them away, and they have transformed into two small children, Pedro and Ana. The film tells the story of Maria's departure from her fantastical viewpoint, which seem a very elaborate way for the commune's leaders to make their point.
And it is undoubtedly elaborate, an astonishing mixture of animation techniques on an enormous scale. It begins plainly enough, with a sketched pattern on paper, but pulls back to become a room, its details painted, chalked, and scribbled on the wall. Maria first appears as one of those chalk drawings, but then springs out of the floor, as tape and Papier-mâché over a wire frame. It's jaw-droppingly precise, and an astounding testament to dedication (most stop motion relies on incremental changes, but Cociña and León sometimes rebuild the world between frames).
From that technical viewpoint, The Wolf House is undeniably impressive. Anyone who wants to see the potential for materials and format in animation needs to see how seamlessly the images flip between two- and three-dimensional, between large-scale props and illustrations that burst through the frames of the wall, spill into the floor, or break into abstractions. Maris inner monologue (voiced by Kassai) explores the fantasy world she creates for herself in this horror - an illusion only broken by the occasional interjection of the soft-spoken leader of the Commune (Krause, filling the part of Colonia Dignidad founder and convicted pedophile Paul Schäfer).
There's no doubt of the ingenuity, imagination, and extraordinary craft on display. Yet, even at a concise 73 minutes, there's a question of, to what end? There are some individual sequences that feel like the filmmakers deconstructing their technique so that other animators can appreciate what they did, and while that often makes it even more impressive, it also creates a soporific pace - especially as the whole film is presented as one long, morphing take.
The Wolf House undoubtedly has sharp and fascinating points to make - about the allure of fascism, of the seductive power of cult leaders and how they undermine the self-confidence of their followers, and more specific charges about the connections between Nazi Germany and Pinochet's junta, and Chilean attitudes to race But those messages get lost in a slow-moving avalanche of undeniably impressive images that never quite touch the emotions in the way they are meant.
The Wolf House is currently available as a virtual cinema release through local arthouse cinemas. Choose from:
• Violet Crown Cinema (Tickets here).