The Wolf House Examines the Trauma of Totalitarianism through a Nightmarish FairytaleMovies Reviews Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León
Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León’s Spanish-German language film The Wolf House is equal parts surreal, tragic and disturbing, due to both its uncanny stop-motion animation style and the real-world inspiration from which it draws. Framed as a propaganda piece crafted by a sinister Germanic cult, portraying 100 lonely days of a young girl who runs away from their faction, the faux-film is proudly emblazoned with the cultural seal of Chile. This is the first hint that The Wolf House will be a vehicle for unpacking generational trauma.
The film follows the perilous journey of María (Amalia Kassai), a young German woman who has narrowly escaped the jaws of a Nazi cult but must now outrun a hungry wolf hot on her trail. The cult María flees is based in Southern Chile, making it an evident parallel to Colonia Dignidad, a German sect established in Chile in the early ’60s by a man named Paul Schaefer, who was about to go on trial for child molestation in West Germany before he was granted sanction to enter Chile. Colonia Dignidad gained notoriety during Pinochet’s fascist military rule from 1973 through 1990 as a facility used by the government for torturing and murdering suspected communists, as well as, it’s rumored, a home to many former Nazis evading conviction for their crimes against humanity, infamous Nazi doctor Josef “Angel of Death” Mengele among them.
As the wolf draws nearer, María stumbles upon a small house in the middle of the woods. She quickly makes herself at home. The house is ostensibly abandoned, save for two small pigs living in squalor in one of the bathrooms. María vows to raise the pigs as her own children, naming them Pedro and Ana. She clothes them, feeds them the little unspoiled food remaining in the house and excitedly tells them that she will teach them “everything that she knows.” But María finds it difficult to navigate what the cult has imparted on her, and complicated feelings surrounding pleasure, punishment and eugenic aesthetic ideals begin to find themselves seeping into her lectures to Pedro and Ana.
The Wolf House can feel sickening at points, mostly due to the ever-morphing vessels that serve as avatars for María, Pedro and Ana. Their corporeal forms emerge crudely shaped from clay, ooze onto the walls and windows as painted figures, grow bloated and disjointed as paper-mache, stitched together and dressed with felt and plush. Animation, specifically stop-motion, has an innate nauseating quality, making it the perfect medium for depicting the metamorphoses and deconstructions of the characters in The Wolf House. The titular lycanthropic abode was a real house that the filmmakers utilized to create the film’s uncanny, human-scale dioramas, the diligent craftwork of the years-long undertaking captured in the finished product’s every frame. By observing the jarring process of characters being created and destroyed in direct reaction to what they experience, the audience is reminded of the human psyche’s equally malleable nature.
Trauma causes an out-of-body experience that at times can only be navigated through allegory and dissociation. In this sense, Cociña and León create a poignant glimpse at the internalized voice of abusers that forever stay ingrained in the minds of those they have mistreated. Throughout the film, a disembodied male voice (Rainer Krausse) is heard taunting María—at times in German, at times in Spanish—tormenting her with threats, berating her attempt to live a happy life and sometimes attempting to coax her into his care. While this voice is often described as being the wolf who still lingers outside, it could also be the voice of the Schaefer-esque leader of the fictionalized cult, whose torment has irreparably altered María’s ability to live peacefully.
While The Wolf House symbolically draws from the story of the three little pigs and is aesthetically indebted to the macabre imagery of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, the filmmakers are most passionate about the global pull of fascist ideology and the countless innocent people who have suffered under its rule, both historically and currently. The fate of thousands of Chile’s “desaparecidos”—civilians who were disappeared by the government due to unfavorable opinions and actions during Pinochet’s regime—remain unaccounted for. While Schaefer was eventually convicted of child sexual abuse in 2005 and died serving a 20-year prison sentence, Colonia Dignidad continues to operate to this day. It brandished itself as Villa Baviera and opened to tourists in 2019, so you can now make a destination out of the once-active torture facility. Rent a cabin, hike around the secluded grounds and purvey world-class honey. María feeds Pedro and Ana what appears to be this very same honey, which eventually aryanizes the two pig-children who were once imagined with jet-black hair and dark brown eyes.
While there is no flat-out denial of their history of Nazism and assisting the Pinochet regime’s heinous agenda, the colony promises they’ve since changed. Similarly, Chile is no longer a dictatorship. Yet its president, Sebastián Piñera, is the first right-wing leader to be democratically elected since the late ’50s, and the country’s first conservative leader since Pinochet. Protests have sprung up around the country over the past year in response to ever-rising subway fares, costs of living and wealth inequality.
The Wolf House foregrounds the arts’ role in creating space to acknowledge widespread trauma, even if those spaces are unnerving and bleak. Bringing these generational traumas to life is imperative: One of the most powerful tools citizens can have is access to a cultural narrative that refuses to omit the evils of historic atrocities from collective consciousness. By confronting the state-sanctioned violence in Chile’s recent past, Cociña and León construct a physical space to reflect the emotional space one must inhabit to process these traumas and to confront the evil figures that may still live within them.
Directors: Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León
Writers: Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León, Alejandra Moffat
Stars: Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause
Release Date: March 20, 2020 (KimStim)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.