As you may have noticed, I have an affection for those films made behind the Iron Curtain during the days of the former Soviet Union.
There are a lot of reasons — and one of the main ones is that there still are neglected gems out there just waiting to be seen.
And you really can’t say that about, say, American or British film of the Fifties and Sixties.
However, as with films from any country or given time, they come with very different attitudes and ideas, which may not be obvious to outsiders. It gets even more complicated with Soviet film thanks to the problems of censorship and official propaganda. Most people looking at, say, The Andromeda Nebula would be baffled to learn that the film offended the Commissars so much they cancelled a planned sequel.
Nor is it a monolithic period of time, producing essentially similar films. Instead, there are several distinct periods, with filmmakers given more or less freedom depending on the times and the demands of the State.
To really get a feel for the era, it helps to watch Czech films, particularly those made during the Czech New Wave. As the Hungarian historian John Lukacs pointed out, by that time everyone — even those imposing it on the rest — knew Communism was a repressive failure.
So a group of young students decided that they needed to show people the truth.
At around the same time, you had a similar political movement going on that led to what is called the Prague Spring, when the country threw off Russian rule — only to have Soviet tanks roll in a few months later.
These filmmakers made an intriguing series of films which did not follow the official rules, often loaded with political satire. Science Fiction and fantasy were favorites, partly because there was already a strong Czech history of making such films, but also because it was easier to deny that your satire was aimed at the real world.
And, if you look at the Russian science fiction — both in print and in films — right around that time, you can see something similar happening, even if it was never quite as open.
In Czechoslovakia, at the height of this period, we saw a number of stunningly honest films which directly challenged Communist ideology, like the brutal comedy, The Ear, about the endless spying and the dangers of choosing the wrong side of a seemingly unimportant argument; or A Report on the Party and the Guests, an absurd comedy about how Communism made people oppress themselves; or the rather dark drama, The Joke, which gave a blistering portrayal of the realities of the system as they had experienced it in college.
One of the most prominent members of the group was Vera Chytilová, who is best remembered for her absurd comedy, Daisies. Like many of those who had been part of the New Wave, her career ground to a halt after the Soviet invasion. For six years, she was unable to get a film made.
However, one of her films got shown at a major film festival and attracted so much attention from the international press that, more or less out of embarrassment, the Czech government allowed her to keep directing (much as would happen to Tarkovsky after Andrei Rubelyev showed at Cannes).
But, she realized just how difficult it was to keep her career alive in the so-called “Normalization” when Communism was forced on them again from outside, so she did something many other Soviet era filmmakers did to allow themselves to criticize the State more openly:
She made a Science Fiction film.
At first glance, Wolf’s Hole looks a lot like an Eighties teen slasher movie (and it is possible, as bootleg tapes of such films were being handed around in Czechoslovakia at the time, that they might have been an influence): it has the same basic setup, as eleven young people go to what is supposed to be an elite skiing camp, and find themselves almost completely cut off from civilization. A heavy snow has blocked the main route and they have to ride the cable lift which is supposed to carry only their gear to get to the cabin.
And they only way to run the lift is with a key which was taken by one of the counsellors.
Things start getting strange once they reach the cabin (which displays the mounted head of a large wolf): they are told that only ten children were invited to the camp, and that one of them is an imposter.
However, one of the girls finds a list on the desk of the leader — a man who insists that they call him “Father” — which lists eleven students.
Their food runs out, and the deliveries do not get made on schedule. Someone ransacks the kitchen and the three counselors blame it on one of the students. They are put under more and more pressure and are finally told that only ten of them can go home. They have to choose one of the students — one they can all agree on — who will die so that the others can leave.
And they won’t go home until they choose someone…
The children were not played by professional actors, although they seem very natural and convincing. They all have some secret or flaw which leaves them open to the relentless psychological attacks afflicted on them — and, as they were carefully chosen by the Counselors from different schools and backgrounds, they were probably chosen for those flaws, for the purpose of the experiment being conducted on them. Most of the increasing terrors seem to be the work of the counsellors, although it is often made to look like one or another of the children was responsible. It is intriguing how the situation changes some of them, like the slightly dim and put-upon mama’s boy who turns into a bully when he gets a hold on another boy, or the twins who seem united against all the rest but start turning against each other as the pressure increases.
We get a lot of almost surreal hints about the counsellors even before they reveal themselves as superior aliens who are there to study the human race. They are sensitive to heat, and frequent go off and roll naked in the snow to cool themselves. While outwardly human, they seem very frightening and alien — although this is almost entirely done with the writing, as there is only a minimum of makeup in a few scenes and no real special effects. There is some incredible footage of snow and ice, apparently provided by artist and animator Jiří Barta, which Vera uses in close up, as new ice forms on things (shot in reverse) whenever the power of the three counsellors increases.
It all leads to a powerful ending, as the children try to escape as a huge storm blows down on the cabin, and they have to decide whether to stick together despite their grievances, or sacrifice one of their number…
It is an absolutely brilliant film. Not only does it look beautiful, but it is stunningly well written, and Vera’s mostly amateur cast performs marvelously. Like so many other films of the era, it deserves to be better known, but, sadly, Czech films remain largely unseen in the U.S., partly because it has received little attention from American critics, and partly because of that classic American aversion to subtitled film. In a way, I’m amazed that no American director has tried to remake Wolf’s Hole, but I’m also thankful, as it is one of those strange and bizarre films which would never have worked in lesser hands.
It isn’t exactly easy to find, but you can watch it on Youtube at the moment, although you will need to add subtitles.
But it is definitely worth the effort, particularly if you enjoy a good psychological horror film…
One thought on “Vlci bouda [Wolf’s Hole] (1987)”
I had no idea about Barta’s possible involvement – if so, I suspect the footage was from his filming of Ballad of Green Wood (Balada o zeleném dřevu, 1983) which is well worth watching on YouTube if you haven’t seen it. Thank you for the review, it was certainly worth the read! 🙂
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