Streaming Review: The Wolf House

Chilean artists Cristobal León’s and Joaquín Cociña’s feature-length animated debut The Wolf House (La casa lobo) was scheduled to play at the 36th Chicago Latino Film Festival as part of its nationwide roll-out by distributor KimStim, two years after its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival and seven years after they started working on it. Then the pandemic struck and most of the world shut down forcing its citizens to live in isolation to escape (or at best hide from) that big bad wolf named COVID-19. And it is in isolation that most movie lovers will see this tale of a girl forced into hiding from another wolf as the film receives its virtual release this week benefitting those independent movie theaters that were scheduled to screen the film before the lockdown. (In Chicago, Facets will receive 50% of the proceeds when The Wolf House streams from May 15-28 as part of its virtual cinema program.)

The Wolf House is the second film released in the last five years inspired by the incidents surrounding Colonia Dignidad in Chile, a colony founded in 1961 by Paul Schäfer, a man accused of child molestation in Germany, and which became a veritable chamber of horrors as adults were drugged and forced into slavery and their children sexually molested. The colony was also used by General Augusto Pinochet’s regime as a location for the imprisonment, torture and murder of hundreds of political dissidents. Florian Gallenberger’s Colonia (2015), starring Emma Watson and Daniel Brühl, told the story of a woman who infiltrates the colony to free her boyfriend immediately after the 1973 coup. But while Gallenberger’s film is an overwrought, manipulative melodrama, that trivializes what is in effect a horror story, León and Cociña, on the other hand, delve on the realm of the allegorical, their film inspired by the fairy tales of The Brothers Grimm and the dark visions of Jan Svankmajer. Cociña and León mix the basic ingredients of such classic tales as “The Three Little Pigs” and “Little Red Riding Hood” and mix them with the most basic aspects of Colonia Dignidad’s history to create a work of art that is disturbingly unique, a nightmare full of visual wonders, each frame delivering a multi-layered visual and aural landscape that changes shapes right before your eyes.

The Wolf House opens with what appears to be one of the many pieces of visual propaganda produced by the colony’s own press operation: a documentary apparently shot on video (or at the very least, transferred to video, given all the pops and glitches) narrated by the colony’s founder (Rainer Krause) in his soft paternalistic German accent and produced in response to the many myths and “misunderstandings” surrounding the colony. The narrator proceeds to present a film unearthed from the colony’s vault and “restored” by Cociña and León. And that film is the one we are about to see: the stop-motion animated tale of María (voiced by Amalia Kassai), a young girl punished by the colony’s leader to spend a hundred days in solitude after letting three little pigs escape from their pen. The spirited girl will have none of it and escapes the compound. 

Pursued by a wolf, she seeks refuge in an abandoned house. “Are there any Chileans here,” she asks out-loud as she wanders from one room to another. Instead she finds two of the three pigs hiding in a corner. Naming them Ana and Pedro, she promises to protect them from the wolf who, in the voice of the colony’s ruler, continually taunts her, his eye taking over an entire wall. The house continually metamorphoses around her. The pigs turn into two dark-skinned children and María raises them as her own. A horrible accident and the honey produced by the colony’s farm transforms them into two perfect Aryan kids. But, really, any attempt at describing the film’s story will fall short for its power lies beyond the mere telling.

Presented as one long, uninterrupted sequence and shot in digital at several museums and galleries in Mexico City, Argentina, Germany and their native Chile, often in front of an audience, The Wolf House is a beautifully, intricately handcrafted and breathtaking work. Characters turn from hand drawn figures sliding along the house’s walls into fully-fleshed three-dimensional creations made out of papier-mâché, cardboard and tape. Arms, legs, even the whole body are pushed and pulled and made to stand up or lean back by very visible pieces of transparent tape. Materials are discarded and pushed aside in the frame to make way for new shapes, new objects. Characters go from nightmarish to angelical in one single motion. Even the language spoken keeps you off-balance, disoriented, as the characters switch from German to Spanish and back again. The scratches of a pencil on a wall as images or shadows are drawn contributes to a sense of dread, of otherworldliness, of things not being quite what they seem, of a mind falling apart.

María’s story is presented as a cautionary tale by the colony’s leader and, in a way. it is…but not as he intended. The house and its many shape-shifting rooms react to María’s fragile state; they externalize the trauma, the pain she has endured. María is keen on telling stories and singing songs to her two “children” for they offer a safe haven from the nightmare. And yet, for all its dark underpinnings, The Wolf House is also a beautiful film, the kind that will make you want to hit the pause button often. But beware, once you hit the play button again, you will be pulled back into this unsettling, unnerving world. A world that leaves no options for its protagonist: either live isolated from the colony with her two children as food supplies dwindle or return to a community that has willingly isolated itself from the rest of the world under the autocratic rule of its leader. There is no escaping the Big Bad Wolf. The Grimm Brothers would be approve of what Cociña and León have created here: a fairy-tale for our modern times.