A writer, publisher, educator, and translator, Jack Zipes has delved deeply into the realm of fairytales, investigating both their evolution and their social and political role in civilizing processes through books including The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films (2010), The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (2012), and Grimm Legacies: The Magic Power of Fairy Tales (2014). Professor emeritus in German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, he has translated the first 1812–1815 edition of the Grimms’s tales, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (2014), and translated and edited an array of texts including Slap-Bam, The Art of Governing Men: Édouard Laboulaye’s Political Fairy Tales (2018) and The Giant Ohl and Tiny Tim (2019). Given his focus on folklore and social history, we invited him to preview The Wolf House, an animated film by Cristóbal León and Joaquin Cociña that melds references to both classic fairytales and Chilean political history through vivid stop-action animation that artfully combines 2- and 3-D elements.
The Wolf House is an animated fairy-tale film filled with horror about a wolf and his wicked deeds. It pretends at first to be a cheerful propaganda film for an ideal religious community that produces the sweetest honey you may have ever tasted. Yet, the film gradually reveals itself to be atrocious and conceals the real history behind ugly events that happened in Chile during the latter part of the twentieth century. The horror is not due to the sinister wolf, whom we never see. The film is actually chillier because we never see this predator, nor are we aware of his “true” history. All we know is what we see: a young girl named Maria escapes severe punishment for not obeying the rules of the wolf’s settlement. She discovers a house in the woods, which becomes her refuge. Outside, the wolf makes many attempts to cajole her to return to her “home.” But there is no home. Maria is homeless, was homeless, and will be more homeless when she returns to the settlement. A ghastly happy end. Certainly not like the optimistic endings to The Three Little Pigs or Hansel and Gretel.
What is the gloom behind all this hopelessness? Why create a stop-motion animated film to depict the brutality of a psychopath and his followers who ruined the lives of hundreds of people? Are the directors using Brecht’s estrangement effect to distance viewers from frightening atrocities? I think we need a bit of history to uncover the choices made by the innovative directors to grasp the serious artistic experiments of The Wolf House. So, let’s begin with a brief account of the background to the film that, in and of itself, is somewhat gruesome.
The creators of The Wolf House, Cristóbal León and Joaquin Cociña, have stated clearly that their unusual film was based on the history of a cult colony of Germans and Chileans, established in Chile in 1961 by a German pedophile and fugitive named Paul Schäfer. It was called Colonia Dignidad or Dignity Colony, rather ironic since Schäfer was a pervert and killer. He was evidently an ex-Nazi who had been a welfare worker during the 1940s and 1950s and also a preacher who supposedly helped children at risk. However, charges of pedophilia and abuse of children led him to organize two hundred people to emigrate to Chile in 1961, where they founded their colony in a remote district of Chile. Sight unseen, Schäfer and his followers could do anything they wished.
From the very beginning, Schäfer, a charismatic leader, projected an image of the colony that made it seem Colonia Dignidad harbored religious and devout people seeking a peaceful and pure life. His followers were pictured as hardy laborers dedicated to farm work and piety, not to mention the production of honey. However, from the very beginning of the settlement, there were major atrocities within the colony. Anyone who objected to Schäfer’s rule was punished, tortured, or killed. All decisions were made by Schäfer alone, and he instituted laws separating children from their families and wives from their husbands. Aside from using children as his sex toys, Schäfer also separated wives from their husbands and constructed a barbed wire fence around the community with towers that resembled a concentration camp. Since most of the Germans in the colony grew up under Nazism and were Nazis themselves, it was easy to control everyone and present an image to the outside world that the colony was not a perverse cult but a happy group of simple, eccentric people who wouldn’t harm a soul. Yet, by 1966, people began to escape the camp and reported all the horrific things that were happening. Nevertheless, the Chilean government did nothing to close down the colony. Finally, when there was a military coup in 1973 and the fascist Augusto Pinochet came to power, Schäfer proved himself to be a loyal supporter of the general’s new regime. In fact, he turned the colony into a detention and concentration camp. Pinochet often sent prisoners to the colony to be tortured and murdered. In addition, the Pinochet government provided money and weapons to the colony.
Soon after the Pinochet government was toppled in 2000, but not soon enough, Schäfer was arrested in 2005. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for child abuse, along with twenty-six other cult members. He died in prison in 2010, an undignified life.
How is it possible to make a film like The Wolf House, created in response to the brutal actions of a pernicious individual and his “loyal” followers? Florian Gallenberger attempted to do this in 2015 with his film The Colony. Yet, Gallenberger’s film focuses more on a German radical, captured by Pinochet’s secret police and sent to Colonia Dignidad. The young man is eventually rescued by his girlfriend, and they fly to Germany with documents that reveal the atrocities of the colony and the connections to Pinochet’s regime. With all his good intentions, Gallenberger could not and did not make a film that explores in depth the miserable conditions of the camp and Chile from 1973 to 2000. His film is more about the courage and romance of the young German radicals. To a certain extent, it is too realistic and ironically cannot capture the disturbing terror and complicity of the colony and Chilean government.
Can a documentary do this? Possibly, but to date there has not been a documentary that has dealt in depth with the horrendous connections between the Pinochet government and the complicitous actions of Dignity Colony. The frightening subject matter demands estrangement. So, what better and radical way to depict the intrigues and complexity of history than to use stop-motion animation to approach the topic: the atrocious brutality of fascism and the particular collaboration of post–World War II nations that continued the practice of abuse and torture, just as the United States has done, up to the present?
León and Cociña brilliantly employ a frame narrative that enables them to distance spectators from the reality of the butchering that occurred at the colony so that their emotions will not cloud their minds. The film begins with a deep soothing male voice which, in a faux documentary, talks about the marvelous honey produced at the Colony and then defends the colony from false accusations by using old film footage of happy and harmonious people working and praying together. At the end of this footage, the narrator shifts to tell us the story of Maria as an example of how those who flee the colony always return to it because the outside world is so terrifying.
Here is where the fairy tale, The Wolf House, becomes horrific. León and Cociña use motifs from Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, and Hansel and Gretel to transform them—as everything keeps transforming in the wolf house—and to demonstrate how a victim of brutal socialization, namely, Maria, cannot save herself despite her good intentions of providing a secure life for two pigs, Ana and Pablo, whom she magically transforms into her children.
The sets and characters are made of masking tape; drawings on the walls melt and merge with real objects; windows turn into Nazi symbols; the house is more a jail than a home; the pigs gradually become blond Aryans (Hansel and Gretel) who want to eat their “mother” (Maria) when they run out of food. There is not one “beautiful” or comforting image in this entire film, which constantly remakes itself. Maria is doomed to happiness in the colony. Fortunately, we are free to leave the cinema and can contemplate how we might escape the wolves littering all walks of our lives, especially those wolves who rule through bullying and brutal domination.