Filmmakers Cristobal Leon and Joaquin Cociña turn Chile’s darkest hour into a stop-motion fairy tale

Kimberly Bradley

Inspired by the brutal history of Colonia Dignidad, the film is a must-see at Art Basel Miami Beach

Once upon a time, a colony of German immigrants lived in southern Chile, framed by mountains of imposing beauty: a community devoted to God, secluded from the temptations of the outside world, and living in harmony with nature.

So begins La Casa Lobo (The Wolf House; 2018), a feature-length stop-motion animated film by the Chilean artist duo Cristobal Leon and Joaquin Cociña, which is having its artworld debut at Upstream Gallery at Art Basel Miami Beach. It tells the story of Maria, a dreamy girl from a German colony, who absentmindedly lets three pigs escape from their pen. As punishment, she must spend 100 days and nights without speaking to anyone to reflect on her transgression. So she runs away.

The plot seems like something from a Grim(m) fairy tale, but The Wolf House is rooted in a real-life story: Colonia Dignidad was a German colony south of Santiago de Chile, founded in 1961 by lay pastor Paul Schäfer. Like many postwar émigrés in South America, Schäfer had National Socialist ties. Colonia Dignidad ran for decades as an agricultural and religious commune; residents, however, lived in a secret dystopia of barbed-wire fences, searchlights, hard labor, and no way out. When the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet took power in the 1970s, his government used the enclave as an undercover center for arms production, torture, money laundering, and pedophilic sexual abuse. The Colonia thus gained tremendous political power. Only five people ever escaped. In the late 1980s, reports of abuse began leaking; Schäfer went underground in the mid-1990s, was later jailed, and died in 2010. 

‘Colonia Dignidad was a quite present subject in Chile – we both grew up during the dictatorship,’ says Leon. ‘It was central to the recent history of our country, so it’s important for us to speak about it.’

The artists frame The Wolf House as a propaganda film for the colony – a message against ever leaving. After a brief, archival, live-action introduction (ostensibly in the narrated voice of Schäfer, discounting the ‘rumors’ about the colony), the work shifts to animated stop-motion, following Maria’s flight through an animated charcoal-drawing forest, chased by a wolf until she comes to a three-dimensional house that she enters as a refuge. The house envelops Maria, who narrates the film in both Spanish and German, but its rooms continually move, practically heaving as they expand and contract. Maria sometimes appears as a drawing on the walls, sometimes as a sculpture rendered in everyday materials, such as masking tape or papier-mâché, sprouting from the floor, sometimes as a puppet. 

Two of the pigs become her companions, constantly morphing as she does. Maria turns them into children named Ana and Pedro. They are initially dark-haired but are later transformed into blonde children (colony residents referred to Chileans as ‘pigs’). The three live together until various tragedies befall them. Transformed into a small bird, Maria hears a voice summoning her back; she leaves the house and returns to the colony. There, she ‘recovers her vitality and helpful spirit’ and takes care of Chilean children to be ‘educated and healed in the colony’.  

The simple narrative is dark and surreal: a bleak, very adult fairy tale that combines familiar elements, such as a wolf, with references to the colony – a plunge into psychological instability, and the conflicting pulls of human independence and connection. It also connects to the cinematic moods and devices of, say, David Lynch (Leon mentions Lynch’s Eraserhead as this film’s primary visual inspiration, while the artists’ oeuvre is often compared to that of the Czech stop-motion artist Jan Svankmajer. Inspirations from the art field include Fischli and Weiss’s Der Lauf der Dinge and the work of Thomas Hirschhorn). A sparse soundtrack by collaborator Claudio Vargas, using his own ambient sounds – harps, chirping birds, rustling leaves, and the low growling of the wolf – accompanies it all.

Myriad details refer to mysticism or religion, such as crosses, Madonna and child, a picture of a boy who cries black tears. At one point, the wolf’s presence is represented as a huge eye on a wall. ‘We used religious symbols because the sect was religious,’ says Cociña. Latin American pop culture, too, makes an appearance. ‘There are things we like,’ adds Cociña, ‘like [the Mexican sitcom] ‘El Chavo’– grownups dressing like kids on Mexican TV.’ Most references emerged experimentally, during what the two call a ‘chaotic’ production.

The duo began collaborating in 2007, having met at art school in Santiago (Leon later studied at the University of the Arts in Berlin, as well as De Ateliers in Amsterdam). Cociña’s background in drawing dovetailed with Leon’s animation; they produced short films in the visual-arts field, showing them alongside sculptures, paintings, drawings, and murals related to the production process. More recently, their work has entered the film-festival circuit: The Wolf House won this year’s Caligari film prize in the Berlinale’s Forum section. 

The film took five years to make and involved a clever production strategy. ‘We’re visual artists,’ says Leon, ‘so when we started the film, we were confronted with locking ourselves into a studio for years and not making exhibitions.’ The two came up with the idea of creating the film publicly and nomadically. Twelve exhibitions took place, mostly throughout Santiago, with the artists and their team using each space as an open studio, which in part explains the animated house’s ever-changing interiors. The film grew organically as each scene – 12 frames per second, with one planned drawing per scene – emerged. ‘We feel we need to rethink the way we use art spaces in our country,’ says Cociña, who says that many of the materials in the film were found in the institutions they worked in. (Other materials came from flea markets: Leon frequently scours them wherever he’s working to see what he might find.) 

Other artists were sometimes invited to join. ‘We built a system of working, in which everything is accepted – when you see a drawing coming together with circles and lines, it’s because two people had different criteria,’ says Cociña. Knowing their own tendency to stray from technique, the duo even created a list of guidelines to keep shooting consistent over the long production period – reminiscent, perhaps, of the strict rules of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme films of the 1990s.

The Wolf House is a cornucopia of visual imagery that offers political critique from a surprising perspective. Leon and Cociña have chosen to slip into the skin of a controversial figure. ‘Here in Chile, all contemporary art is left-wing artists like us, wanting more justice in the world,’ says Cociña, explaining why the film takes on authoritarianism and its psychological effects from the inside. ‘But we find it really boring that you go to an opening, watch a film, and you agree with everything. We think it’s more fun to be fascist.’ Both artists laugh. ‘He said that, not me!’ exclaims Leon.

Living happily ever after might be a universal goal, but Leon and Cociña shine a light on the price we all might pay. The last line of the film, narrated as if it were Schäfer addressing the viewer, is: ‘Do you want me to take care of you?’

Cristobal Leon and Joaquin Cociña's La Casa Lobo (The Wolf House; 2018) will be shown by Upstream gallery in the Positions sector of the 2018 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach. Discover more artists and galleries participating in this year’s Positions sector here.

Top image: Cristobal Leon and Joaquin Cociña, La Casa Lobo (The Wolf House) (detail)2018. Courtesy of the artists.