REVIEW: La Casa Lobo [The Wolf House] [2018]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 75 minutes
    Release Date: November 1st, 2018 (Chile) / March 20th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Kimstim Films
    Director(s): Joaquín Cociña & Cristóbal León
    Writer(s): Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León & Alejandra Moffat

But he will not catch me.

You may need some context before starting Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León‘s dark animated feature La casa lobo [The Wolf House]—namely that of German fugitive Paul Schäfer and the colony he created in Chile known as Colonia Dignidad. There he and other Nazis war criminals committed countless acts of human atrocities upon those they imprisoned behind its walls. We’re talking the sexual abuse of minors, the internment and torture of dissidents on behalf of General Augusto Pinochet, and weapon smuggling. The area’s borders have since been opened under new leadership and a new name (Villa Baviera) with tourism opportunities for those interested in its sordid past. The mark it left on countless souls courtesy of physical and emotional scars, however, can’t simply be swept under the rug.

Rather than merely tell the story of the colony, Cociña, León, and their co-writer Alejandra Moffat decide to distill the distress and confusion suffered by those who were forced to endure Schäfer’s evil into a tale of one young woman named María (Amalia Kassai). And rather than simply tell her story (the accidental death of three pigs for which she was responsible leading to severe punishment and a subsequent escape to find shelter in an abandoned forest house outside its jurisdiction), they decide to put a malicious spin on the proceedings by presenting everything from Schäfer’s perspective. What we’re shown is thus fabricated into propaganda that Colonia Dignidad’s leader can use to assuage outsider fear by positing how one child’s Big Bad Wolf might actually be her Woodsman.

So while Schäfer (in the fictitious guise of said wolf, as voiced by Rainer Krause) admits María’s terror, he does so in the context that there’s more complexity to the situation than its predator versus prey surface. It’s why he doesn’t merely “huff and puff” to blow the house down and take what’s “his.” He skulks around the perimeter instead, talking to the girl with the intent of coaxing her back. She refuses, of course, and chooses to build a home of her own with two pigs she fantastically transforms into human beings named Pedro and Ana with whom she can live out her days. But what happens if they turn out to be just as cruel as her former captor? What if the “real” wolves are inside?

The result is a fascinatingly nightmarish depiction of María’s psychology as PTSD crushes her ability to hope for a normal future and Stockholm syndrome erases her capacity to tell the difference between friend and foe. Cociña and León render it in heavy paints and papier-mâché as a continuous seventy-five-minute shot moving from room to room as surfaces are covered, replaced, moved, and disappeared. If an object is added to the frame, it will most likely be consumed with the wall upon which it’s affixed when necessary. Every surface is a canvas with one sequence brilliantly using glass to superimpose an animated figure atop the background beneath. Cellophane doubles as water, pigs and humans shift from two-dimensions to three, and the wolf’s voice forever whispers as darkness periodically descends.

Things turn macabre during the latter moments as fire blackens walls and people while a giant eye blinks and provokes. María desperately tries healing her “children” with honey—a valuable commodity harvested in the colony that she and other “dark-skinned” prisoners weren’t allowed to have. She seeks to make them blonde-haired and blue-eyed like her Aryan oppressors due to the indoctrination she can’t know has taken control of her consciousness despite her rejection of their torturous ways. The sound design captures the ripping of tape and paper as maquettes are constructed and dismantled via stop-motion time lapse for an otherworldly aesthetic that can’t help but steal your undivided attention for the duration. And all the while we remember Schäfer is the storyteller. His wolf is waiting to pounce.

María doesn’t therefore stand a chance. No matter all the bright light and joy she imbues in Pedro, Ana, and the home she builds them, this is a tale whose end was written before it even began. This isn’t a cautionary tale about Colonia Dignidad. It conversely warns us about the world outside. So just as the scene changes from color to black and white whenever the wolf speaks, similar shifts begin to occur in tandem with the voices of María’s piglet wards. Holes meant to provide shelter to animals become mouths opening wide to satiate their hunger. Teeth sharpened and bloodied become axes primed to rip down doors in a bid to emancipate. Up becomes down. Good becomes bad. Another cult’s fairy tale turns deathly grim.

courtesy of Kimstim Films

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