May 15, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña
Spanish and German with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Chile, the animated film “The Wolf House” tells the story of a woman named Maria, who has escaped from a cult of German religious fanatics, and the house that comes to life after she finds refuge there.
Culture Clash: The nightmarish story of Maria’s isolation in the house has various hallucinations where she is sometimes at odds with entities in the house that morph into other beings.
Culture Audience: “The Wolf House” will appeal primarily to people who like avant-garde animation.
To understand the experimental animated film “The Wolf House,” it’s better that people know in advance that the movie is inspired by the story of Colonia Dignidad, a real-life cult founded in in 1961 in Chile by a German fugitive Paul Schäfer, who ended up being a convicted child abuser. Not knowing this historical background for the film will leave viewers very confused over the point of this often-incoherent movie, which has striking visuals but lacks a well-written storyline.
“The Wolf House” has a movie-within-a-movie concept, since the it’s supposed to be “found footage” of a propaganda film made by a German colony in Chile and narrated by a man called Wolf (voiced by Rainer Krausse), whose voice is heard at the beginning and at the end of the film. Viewers can assume that Wolf is the cult leader, based on he says in the movie’s last scene.
During the course of the movie, the story is told of a young woman named Maria, who lived in the community but was punished for letting three little pigs escape. She was kept in solitary confinement for 100 days and 100 nights until she escaped into the woods and hid in an isolated house.
“The wolf is coming,” Maria says. “But he will not catch me.” When Maria (voiced by Amalia Kassai) begins speaking, she takes over the narration of the majority of the movie that shows what happens inside the house while she’s hiding.
What takes place inside the house is like a fever dream, and it’s up to the viewers to interpret what could be real and what could be Maria’s imagination. The entire movie plays out like a psychedelic, nightmarish fairy tale. Just like Lewis Carroll’s Alice who went down the rabbit hole, Maria in “The Wolf House” experiences her own version of a weird and confined alternative world.
Maria asks for help with food, shelter and water—and a tree comes to life to help her. In the house, she finds two pigs, which she names Pedro and Ana. She gives them water and notices that they have human hands. Small animals also give Maria an apple as a thank you gift. Ana and Pedro eventually morph into two human children, with Pedro as a boy who’s younger than Ana. In “The Wolf House,” Kassai also voices the characters of Ana and Pedro.
Maria reads a book to Pedro called “The Dog and the House,” which is about a disobedient dog who jumped out of a window and was never found again but is presumed dead since the wind brought back the smell of the dog’s broken bones and other injuries. The book is an obvious parallel to what Maria might experience, and it serves as a warning/cautionary tale to anyone else who might think of escaping the cult.
The quirky animation of “The Wolf House” was shot frame-by-frame with digital photography. The ever-morphing characters were presented in two ways: (1) as animated puppets made out of paper, cardboard, masking tape and paint and (2) as animated drawings on the walls of the house. Nothing really stays still in the house, and all is not what they seem to be. Walls and furniture can turn into body parts; people can emerge from different objects; and human characters can change their physical size and hair color, or can morph back and forth into animals or other different things.
When Maria is feeling safe and comfortable, she speaks in Spanish. When she’s feeling angry or threatened, she speaks in German. It’s a clear metaphor for her true self being a Spanish-speaking Chilean, while she takes on the persona of her German cult tormenters when she’s having negative thoughts.
When Maria thinks of humans in degrading terms, they’re visualized as pigs. And when Pedro and Ana morph from being Latino-looking children into blond-haired German-looking children, it’s a metaphor for Nazi-like conformity that gives preference to Aryan-looking people. These types of metaphors in “The Wolf House” are why the movie has a deeper meaning if audiences know in advance that the disturbing history of Colonia Dignidad is the basis of “The Wolf House” screenplay.
“The Wolf House” directors Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña wrote the screenplay with Alejandra Moffat. The script seems to be an unfocused secondary priority that just goes with the flow of whatever strange visual effects that the filmmakers wanted to infuse throughout the story. However, the art direction from León, Cociña and Natalia Geisse succeeds on a much higher artistic level than the movie’s script. There are some truly unique images that make “The Wolf House” a treat for people who might be interested in a more avant-garde alternative to Laika animated films.
For people who don’t have the benefit of knowing what inspired “The Wolf House,” the visuals might be enough to hold an audience’s interest. Unfortunately, Kassai’s narration, which has a whispering sing-song tone, can be extremely grating after a while. “The Wolf House” is definitely not a family film (since children will not understand the movie at all), nor is it a mainstream film for adults. Ultimately, the movie’s concept needed to better articulated in its writing, and “The Wolf House” probably would have been better off as a short film.
KimStim released “The Wolf House” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on May 15, 2020.