MUBI Movies: THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

Evil lurks under the surface of this stop-motion allegory.

MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2018, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.

As a sucker for stop-motion animation, I was a bit disappointed to not catch The Wolf House at Fantastic Fest. As an eerie and unapologetically artificial artifact, the film seemed right up my alley, but scheduling, exhaustion, and other obligations just kept me away from the screenings. Now, imagine my surprise to find the film available on MUBI this month, as if to give me a second chance to see the film and share my thoughts with all of you. And schmaltzy and self-indulgent opening paragraph aside, I might have bitten off more than I can chew.

See, The Wolf House isn’t just a phantasmagorical nightmare that would seem avant-garde save for the immense amount of symbolic effort on display, but is, in fact, a deep allegory about a chapter of history that I and most American audiences are going to be unfamiliar with. The story is that of Colonia Dignidad, a Chilean colony and cult run by Paul Schafer, a former Nazi on the run from the German government for charges of child abuse. This colony became the site of numerous atrocities that violated the rights of its residents and helped facilitate the rise of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. None of this is elaborated in the film itself, and I can only offer that insight myself through a modest amount of research after seeing the film. Much of the symbology and nuance of the story is lost on me, so I am ill-equipped to comment on the film's fitness as an allegory. But I can tell you that the seventy minutes spent with this film is a disturbing trip into the psychologically unsound, and that’s enough to justify the experience even without understanding the whole picture.

This is the story of Maria, an escapee from the colony held in a house by a “wolf” whom we never see but only hear the voice of. In this house, Maria raises two piglets, which eventually transform into a pair of children, Ana and Pablo. Maria teaches these kids to speak and to take care of one another, but there’s a pervasive sense of isolation as it becomes clear to us that Maria and the children are incapable of leaving their house. In fact, they seem more a part of the house than free to move within it, and the limits on their ability to leave places a psychological burden on them that threatens to tear them apart.

Maria’s voiceover narration and the voices of the children are all one and the same, and their existence in the house is defined by constantly shifting perspective and nightmarish transformation. The entire film is framed as a continuous shot that doesn’t so much travel through rooms of the house but has the scenes of the house built up around it, framing Maria and the children as components that are no different than the materials of the building. Shifting between papier mache, paintings upon the walls, clay figurines, and transparencies, the characters are in a constant state of flux that simultaneously emphasizes the artificiality of their construction and a persistent deconstruction of identity and their reality. It’s a constant barrage of dark and unsettling imagery, no less so for the fact that the people we see continually broken down and reassembled never approach realism.

The Wolf House is an unsettling experience, but it’s a satisfying one for the simple fact that there isn’t much else like it. It’s harsh and uncompromising, but it’s also a fascinating work of craftsmanship, as you are essentially watching a story being told through the process of building sets and models while they are being animated. I may be the wrong person to speak of the true meaning under the layers of allegory, but I can certainly tell you that regardless of the understanding you bring to it, The Wolf House makes for a greatly troubling time.

You can stream The Wolf House on MUBI now!