Uncovering Josef Mengele’s hideout in Argentina, Lucía Puenzo’s The German Doctor struggles to make a monster of the Angel of Death.
The Killer Inside Me by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s not the first time Argentina has examined its dark past, but like Jeanine Meerapfel’s The German Friend, Lucía Puenzo’s Wakolda chooses the Argentina of refugee Nazis, (touched upon in Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt with the capture of Adolf Eichmann) over the disappearance of anti-Peronist dissidents of The Secret In Their Eyes. The film is adapted from Puenzo’s own novel, and with its spectrum of characters in small-town Argentina, it’s a slow-burn thriller that threatens to make a man of the monstrous “Angel of Death”.
It’s Patagonia, 1960 and Lilith (Florencia Bado) is playing outside her school with her friends when a German doctor (Àlex Brendemühl) drives up and makes friends with her. Lilith’s family are leaving town too, so the doctor follows Lilith and her family along the long and dangerous desert highway to Bariloche, checking in as the sole guest into their family-run Alpine-style hotel by the lake. Slowly, the family’s suspicions are allayed as he helps Enzo (Diego Peretti) get his cottage doll-making business into production, and assuages mother Eva’s fears (Natalia Oreiro) that her daughter will always be abnormally short. But as he starts to administer growth hormones, reigniting a long-neglected passion for genetics, the doctor walks a fine line between his hippocratic oath and putting his theories to the test on live subjects.
Ostensibly a film about about notorious war criminal Josef Mengele, The German Doctor, like her previous films, The Fish Child and XXY, focuses on the wide-eyed tribulations of youth, as Lilith – the smallest in her class – is tormented by her taller peers and can’t wait to grow. She teeters on rocks, falls from trees and even enjoys her first kiss with sympathetic classmate Otto. But it’s the brooding presence of their German houseguest that steals the show, hovering somewhere between stern foreigner and psychotic doctor. It’s a shame then that Puenzo relies on Mengele’s reputation for our understanding of the film. Here, Mengele’s theories on genetics seem credible enough, and his treatments trustworthy – his growth hormones and his neonatal sugar doses do work. We’re not in Auschwitz any more.
Perhaps Puenzo gives her audience too much credit, or perhaps it’s Àlex Brendemühl’s performance as Josef Mengele that’s too blankly sympathetic and not quite teeth-gnashingly diabolical enough, but the German doctor never threatens more than a dark shadow. Mengele’s interest in the father’s doll business, who changes from making unique dolls with spuriously tinkered beating hearts is meant to be chilling, as rows of blue-eyed, blond-haired dolls line his room. But as an admirer of beauty, of uniform perfection over uniqueness, it’s perhaps not so far from our own modern-day predilections for airbrushed perfection. The real problem for the family who take the doctor into their German guesthouse of a home is their broken trust – that the man they wanted to believe in turns out to be a Nazi. Or rather, turns out to be what they always thought he was. Only they can no longer pretend not to notice.
Eventually, a thriller plot breaks in as Mossad agent Nora urges her superiors to pick Mengele up. Only they’re hot on the heels of Eichmann. And in any case, Bariloche appears to be a den of Nazis, where they (somewhat incomprehensibly) bury the materials that might give them away rather than burn them, and where girls with Aryan corn plaits rule the very German roost. The catch-him-while-you-can thriller plot though never really comes to much – Mengele is easily photographed and identified. But how Mengele comes to suspect Nora remains a mystery. And while it may be perfectly normal for Eva to ask for a photograph of her babies, here it feels forced. One of the best things though about Wakolda is its German community in West Argentina – with its Bavaria Bar, its population of don’t-ask-don’t-tell Germans that would have been more than happy to host such an “esteemed guest” and a sanatorium where former Nazis on the run can hydroplane in to to get their faces changed. And while it struggles to make a villain of its hero, Lucia Puenzo’s The German Doctor casts an intriguing light on an dark time.
The German Doctor is released on 7th August 2014 in the UK