Review: ‘The Wolf House,’ starring Amalia Kassai and Rainer Krausse

May 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Wolf House” (Image courtesy of KimStim)

“The Wolf House”

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.

“The Wolf House” (Image courtesy of KimStim)

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.

Review: ‘The Cordillera of Dreams,’ starring Pablo Salas, Jorge Baradit, Francisco Gazitúa, Javiera Parra and Alvara Amigo

February 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Cordillera of Dreams” (Photo courtesy of Icarus Films)

“The Cordillera of Dreams”

Directed by Patricio Guzmán

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: This documentary examines the past and present political culture of Chile, with the Andes mountain range as a backdrop.

Culture Clash: Survivors of Chile’s turbulent history tell their stories of what it was like to live during the political battles of democracy versus dictatorship from the 1970s to the present.

Culture Audience: “The Cordillera of Dreams” will appeal primarily to people who have an interest in South American history and nature.

“The Cordillera of Dreams” (Photo courtesy if Icarus Films)

“The Cordillera of Dreams” is part travel documentary, part Chilean history lesson and part autobiography. (The word “cordillera” means mountain range.) The movie, which is narrated in voiceover only by director Patricio Guzmán, takes viewers on a journey through Santiago and other parts of Chile, to get first-person accounts of the often painful experiences of living through turbulent times, The regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, is put under a particular spotlight in the film.

“The Cordillera of Dreams” is the third film in Guzmán’s trilogy of documentaries about how Chile’s natural land ties into Chile’s sociological history. The trilogy began with  2011’s “Nostalgia for the Light” and continued with 2015’s “The Pearl Button.” But before “The Cordillera of Dreams” gets to the history of Chilean politics during the Pinochet regime, the documentary begins by immersing viewers into the idea that while different types of government might come and go and Chile, the Andes Mountains have remained the one true constant for changing eras and social customs in Chile.

The cinematography (by Samuel Lahu) is absolutely stunning, especially when taking in the majestic views of the Andes Mountains. (The cinematography is probably one of the main reasons why “The Cordillera of Dreams” won the prize for Best Documentary at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.) The documentary interviews a few people who live in the Andes, including sculptor Francisco Gazitúa, who says: “When you live in the Andes for many years, it feels like you’re inside a large, rocky container … It’s a labyrinth.”

Another sculptor named Vicente Gajadro, who likes to extract rocks from the Andes to see what’s inside, had this to say about living in these natural surroundings: “The Cordillera is a great mystery. I believe it’s a cultural landmark.” He also says of the enormous mountains: “They protect me, but they also isolate me.”

Alvaro Amigo, a volcanologist, comments on the awe-inspiring landscape: “When I look at the Cordillera, I see millions of years of evolution exposed.” And writer Jorge Baradit says that the Cordillera is “like a sea that makes us an island.”

Guzmán says that crossing the Cordillera is like arriving in a place that’s in the faraway past. “Everything seems unreal. I feel somewhat like an alien.” He says his earliest childhood memory of the Cordillera was seeing it on matchboxes. The director then shows viewers the house he used to live in when he was young. In stark contrast to the natural and clean-looking beauty of the Andes, the abandoned house is now in an area that looks like a junkyard. Guzmán, who no longer lives in Chile, says that going to his childhood home is a sad reminder of a more peaceful time in Chile, before the political “earthquake” of September 11, 1973.

On that day, when Guzmán was 32 years old, his life and the lives of millions of other Chileans changed forever, as a military coup d’état overthrew Socialist President Salvador Allende and elevated to power Pinochet as a dictatorial and brutal leader who ordered the persecution of left-wing political activists and other left-leaning Allende supporters. Many innocent people were also caught up in the turmoil, as the police and other military raided cities. There were widespread kidnappings, tortures and murders of thousands of people.

It’s here, near the middle of the film, that the story shifts to the urban bustle of Santiago, Chile’s capital city. Guzmán revisits the Stadium in Santiago, where thousands of male civilians, ages 15 to 65, were taken from their homes by police, arrested, and then rounded up and held as prisoners at the stadium, where they often tortured. Guzmán was one of those prisoners, and he remembers how just a few years before the coup d’état, he had been a happy World Cup spectator at the stadium when Italy played against Chile.

Guzmán was a political prisoner for two weeks, and even though the military put him under duress to tell them where he had put his documentary film footage of the military committing crimes, he refused to tell them. The experience of being imprisoned was so traumatic for Guzmán that he left Chile and hasn’t lived there since. Meanwhile, sculptor Francisco Gazitúa said he was under house arrest for four years.

Another person who shares their memories of the beginning of the Pinochet regime is singer Javiera Parra, remembers as a child seeing the police raiding people’s homes and feeling fear and uncertainty as military tanks would pass by when she was in a schoolyard. The feelings and insecurity and devastation still remain with the survivors, and will probably stay with them for the rest of their lives when they think about this disturbing time in Chile’s history.”

Perhaps the most fascinating person in the documentary is photo/video journalist Pablo Salas, who has been documenting Santiago street life since the 1970s and has almost miraculously never been arrested, even though he’s been in the middle of countless protests and violence in the streets. The documentary includes some archival footage that Salas was generous enough to share, giving insight into how chaotic and brutal life was on the streets of Santiago during the Pinochet regime. (The documentary also shows Salas’ home office, which is stacked to the brim with tapes he’s saved over the years.)

The archival footage shows scenes of people literally being dragged away by police for no apparent reason, as family members and friends try in vain to stop this horror from happening. People are seen getting beaten or blasted with water by police. And then there are the full-on riots that are shown. Although life in Chile is not as violently out-of-control as it was back then, there is still a lot of political unrest.

Salas, who obviously has a passion for it job, keeps documenting it all. He says the biggest difference now, compared to when he first started, is that more citizens can videorecord what’s happening, thanks to smartphones. He says he finds this change refreshing but also sometimes annoying when he wants to get footage but other non-journalist people are in the way trying to get their best shots too.

The documentary takes a brief, somewhat distracting detour into examining the trains that carry copper, Chile’s biggest natural resource. Even more interesting is the haunting footage inside Pinochet’s former offices, which are now abandoned but symbolize a period of Chilean history that the people cannot and should forget.

Guzmán has an almost poetic way of demonstrating the rot and neglect among the beauty of the Andes, as the documentary shows a junkyard of abandoned cars. It’s an obvious metaphor for Chile’s abandoned dreams for having a completely peaceful democracy. But Guzmán and many others haven’t given up hope in Chile. Just like items in a junkyard, perhaps what was abandoned can be salvaged and restored.

Icarus Films released “The Cordillera of Dreams” in New York City February 12, 2020, and will release the film in Los Angeles on February 21, 2020, followed by released in several other cities in the U.S. and Canada in the subsequent weeks. The movie was originally released in Chile and other countries in 2019.