11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

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La casa lobo

“Like in dreams, where one person can assimilate the attributes of another, the story and characters of the film take on different materialities. All of the changes in the house, characters and objects emphasize the permanent under-construction reality of the film.”–from the director’s statement to The Wolf House

DIRECTED BY: Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León

FEATURING: Voices of Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause

PLOT: A prologue purports to be a documentary on a Chilean commune founded by Germans; we are told that the film that follows has been restored from their vaults. Those reels tell the story of Maria, a girl who strays from their community and finds herself hiding from a wolf at a mysterious house in the woods. There, she finds and nurtures two piglets, who gradually turn human.

Still from The Wolf House (Las Casa Lobo) (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • The scenario was inspired by Colonia Dignidad, a colony founded by ex-Nazis in Chile. The colony was often described as a cult and was insulated from its neighbors by barbed-wire fences. From 1961 to 1996 it was led by Paul Schäfer, a refugee wanted for child molestation in West Germany. The colony became the subject of dark rumors among the locals, rumors which were validated after escapees told tales of systematic child abuse inside the compound. The cult survived by allying with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who used the colony as a detention and torture camp.
  • Cociña and León had worked together, and sometimes separately, on a number of award-winning animated shorts before tackling this, their first feature film. The Wolf House took five years to complete.
  • Cociña and León took their sets on the road and worked on The Wolf House at various museums across the world, where visitors watched as they created the animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Due to the sheer volume and continually shifting nature of The Wolf House‘s liquid visuals, picking a single image is an imposing task. We will go with the grayscale eyeball that materializes on the house’s wall like a sketch drawn by an invisible pencil, complete with a semitransparent eyelid, a pulsating pupil, and the ability to shake the furniture with its glance.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Pigs with human hands; magic Aryan honey

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Wolf House‘s experimental animation traps us in a constantly shifting nightmare dollhouse: Maria merges into and out of the walls, conjures human features for her pigs, and even the paintings on the walls can’t keep their shape for more than a second or two. The fascist-fairy tale tone is dreamily calm, and inescapably horrific.


Original trailer for The Wolf House

COMMENTS: It’s probably enlightening to have some background information on the curious Nazi cult of Colonia Dignidad and their pedophile leader Paul Schäfer before watching The Wolf House; Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León’s Chilean audience would certainly understand the allusions in the film. Without such knowledge, you might not understand why it’s significant that a swastika briefly swirls into being as the wolf house configures itself, or why Maria chooses to turn her pig-children into blue-eyed blondes to “perfect” them. On the other hand, it does not take an uninformed viewer long to realize that there is something sinister about the colony in the movie. The short live action opening segment, with its unctuous narrator describing the colony as an agrarian paradise, is obvious propaganda; his dismissive mention of the “dark rumors” circulating around this perfectly harmless settlement sets off alarm bells. The nightmare that follows—presented, improbably, as an artifact from the colony’s film vaults—-does nothing to “dispel the horrible rumours that have stained our reputation.” Rather, the story that unfolds seems a cautionary tale meant to scare off the cult’s children from daring to venture into the outside world. Our narrator is truly of the unreliable variety, and his behavior through the remainder of the film suggests a Big Brother engaged in master-level gaslighting.

The narrator fades away, replaced temporarily by explicating text, as we journey into the heart of the movie. A brief section of black and white animation captures Maria’s flight through the woods as we transition from live-action to stop-motion. The hand-drawn door becomes a real door and we enter into the house, which is initially just composed of bare gray walls. But as we watch, Cociña and León’s method takes shape: a room spontaneously assembles. The door slides across the wall and becomes a window; lamps, pictures and furniture soon join, all drawn directly on the walls and floor of the cabin. Maria herself appears, painted before our eyes directly on the door, then drifting across the walls. Startled by a scuttling beetle, her painted form melts into the floor and reforms as a crude clay figure. This constant shifting from one form to another—from two to three dimensions, from one crude doll avatar to another—will occur throughout the rest of the film. Nothing stays still. The house and its inhabitants are always morphing. You never glimpse the same painting on the wall twice. You never see the same clock on the wall twice—although every clock you do see spins its hands wildly, time too having lost its meaning inside these walls. The piglets Maria finds huddled near the toilet change form, too, though more slowly: they first grow human appendages, then grow into mute Chileans, then, with the addition of magical colony honey, turn blonde. Meanwhile, loose hands scurry about on the floor before merging with their bodies, and eyeballs appear on the walls.

The visual fireworks may outshine and overwhelm the sound design, but it works in tandem to produce a feeling of unease. In fact, without the insectoid scuttling noises as Maria and her pig-children merge into one another, and then into the seat cushions, the transformations might seem as whimsical as sinister.  The soundscape is usually quiet—often eerily quiet. Maria speaks softly and dreamily, either in soliloquy or to her piglets, but there is always some accompaniment: crickets chirping, furniture scraping across the floor, tinkling bells, crinkling cellophane, and the distant panting of a wolf. Every now and then tinny Wagner overtures play, as if the sound of a phonograph is wafting in from the nearby colony. And, Maria’s reveries are interrupted by our old narrator, who calls, tauntingly, “Maria…. Maria!,” occasionally slipping from Spanish into German.

The male narrator will go quiet for a while, but he always comes back; he will indulge her for a while, but he will never let this become Maria’s story. He always watches, and manipulates, and speaks inside her skull. To the extent that the story tucked inside The Wolf House‘s propaganda wrapper can be taken as in some way “real,” it’s arguable that the entire story takes place in Maria’s dissociated imagination as she endures the hundred hours of shunning prescribed as a punishment for her negligence in allowing pigs to escape. The interior of the wolf house fails to hold form because it’s built from dreams and vain longings for escape. The narrator’s appearances are reality intruding into Maria’s fantasy refuge. His subliminal suggestions undermine her confidence, and her cult training eventually cause her to turn her fantasy on itself; she willingly returns to “reality,” convinced that the world outside is not a place for a lone girl and that she will find no trustworthy friends, only wolves.

Fairy tales are told to frighten children into safe behaviors; but the same stories that good parents tell to keep their children from wandering into the woods may be used by bad parents. A child with no frame of reference may prefer a horrible reality to uncertain horrors. If Paul Schäfer could use threats and lies to control the 350 members of Colonia Dignidad, then perhaps Augusto Pinochet could use similar tactics on 10,000,000 Chileans. Fear can be used to make people accept nightmares.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If an Orwellian fable were to be visualized by a surrealist in the vein of Salvador Dali, the result would look and feel something like ‘The Wolf House’… A dystopian tale with haunting echoes of ‘The Three Little Pigs’ and ‘Red Riding Hood,’ this shape-shifting, trippy nightmare from filmmakers Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña startles and terrifies in equal measure..”–Tomris Laffly, Variety (contemporaneous)

“So much of The Wolf House feels like a hallucinatory, out-of-body experience… The film’s animation leans into its most jerky, artificial qualities, all the better to enhance the atmosphere of bizarre unreality.”–Steven Scaife, Slant (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

The Wolf House – U.S. distributor KimStim’s comprehensive Wolf House page has basic info, stills, and a link to download the digital presskit

IMDB LINK: The Wolf House (2018)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Ten Filmmaking Rules Of ‘La Casa Lobo,’ 2018’s Most Gonzo Stop Motion Feature – Cartoon Brew’s behind-the-scenes report on The Wolf House‘s production

The Bitterness of Honey: Jack Zipes on The Wolf House – Essay on the real-life horrors of Colonia Dignidad and their relationship to the film

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)Giles Edwards‘ original review for this site

HOME VIDEO INFO: KimStim’s DVD (buy) release is packed with bonus features, including two short films from the directors (working separately), deleted scenes, and interviews. It also comes with a booklet containing an essay by Jack Zipes (also linked above) explaining the historical background, along with original artwork by Cociña and León.

Sadly, and strangely, there is no Blu-ray release of the film, at least not at the present time.

Naturally, The Wolf House can also be purchased or rented digitally on-demand (rent or buy).

3 thoughts on “11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)”

  1. A very impressive film. Watching it was an overwhelming experience. Haven’t found the courage to watch it again yet.

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