New Film on Nazi Doctor Josef Mengele, THE GERMAN DOCTOR

by Peter Wong on April 24, 2014

Two questions are frequently asked about “The German Doctor,” an award-winning new drama which opens April 25, 2014 at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas. First, how much of the film happened in real life? Second, why is the film’s original title “Wakolda?”

To answer the first question, Argentina became a haven for Nazi refugees from Europe during Juan Peron’s presidency. The film’s titular doctor felt safe enough to have a telephone book listing under his real name. Director Lucia Puenzo (“XXY,” “The Fish Child”) noted in an interview that her lead character did disappear from Buenos Aires shortly after the Mossad captured fellow Nazi criminal Adolph Eichmann. Mossad agent Nora Eldoc was one of many actual Nazi hunters operating in Argentina during that period. On the other hand, Lilith and her family are fictional constructs based on historical supposition. The titular character’s actions in the film are a mix of fictional invention and actual fact.

Answering the second question requires knowing a little bit about Puenzo’s film.

It’s 1960 Argentina. On a Patagonian desert road, Lilith (Florencia Bado) and her family travel to an inherited lake resort near Bariloche, hoping to revive the business. During a stopover, the family meets Dr. Helmut Gregor (an elegantly charismatic Alex Brendemuhl), who’s heading to Bariloche to assume a post in the town’s veterinary facility. What Dr. Gregor knows (and Lilith’s family does not) is that Bariloche and the surrounding area has become a haven for Nazi refugees and their sympathizers. But the German doctor’s biggest secret is his real identity: Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi fugitive known as The Angel of Death.

The Mossad’s effort to capture Dr. Mengele provides a minor but important subplot. Puenzo’s main attention is focused on showing the relationships that develop between Dr. Mengele and Lilith’s family. “Wakolda” provides the perfect metaphor for describing these interconnections.

This supposed nonsense word is actually the name of Lilith’s favorite doll. Though Lilith doesn’t play much with the toy onscreen, that play relationship (albeit without innocence or sentimentality) describes the connections that spring up between Dr. Mengele and the Argentine family. The girl’s dwarfish shape makes her look like a living doll to the criminal doctor. The doll invention hobby of Enzo, Lilith’s father, becomes Dr. Mengele’s lever for exerting control over the man. Enzo’s desire to assemble a doll becomes a pathetic assertion of individuality.

“The German Doctor” deftly avoids being a “Nazis are among us” melodrama. The film slowly reveals its malevolent secrets gradually. In the opening minutes the camera, standing in for Dr. Mengele’s perspective, pays a little too close attention to Lilith’s bare legs. The child’s reassuring narration isn’t quite assuaged by the possibility that the doctor might be a pedophile. Indeed, viewer distrust is increased by Dr. Mengele’s automatic reaching for a hidden gun on hearing a gunshot. Ironically, the ultimate revelation of Nazis in Puenzo’s fictional tale does not come via Dr. Mengele’s character. Except for one brutal moment, very little distinguishes the behavior of the ex-Nazis or their sympathizers from the ordinary German expatriates living in Bariloche.

Puenzo’s ultimate goal is showing how ordinary people embraced or were at least quietly manipulated by Nazi assumptions about human behavior. Brendemuhl’s charismatic performance makes the criminal state his character worked for far more potent and dangerous than the archival images of Nazi swastikas. Instead of hailing from a country seriously battered by a world war, Dr. Mengele conveys the confidence of a man who’s only suffered what to him is a temporary setback. The secretive talk of trustworthy people and hatred of “different” people implies the fugitive doctor is not alone.

Dr. Mengele plays with the foibles of Lilith and her family to slowly corrupt them. Enzo’s desire to see his mechanical doll heart actually built leads to his accepting the doctor’s “creative suggestions” at the expense of his principles. Eva, Lilith’s mother, feels guilty about turning her daughter into a school pariah by prematurely birthing her and implicitly stunting her physical development. Dr. Mengele’s proposed solution seems like a godsend.

Bado’s Lilith doesn’t need much manipulation to become susceptible to Dr. Mengele’s suggestions. She deludes herself by imagining she’s boldly unafraid of her relationship with the incognito war criminal. The doctor’s the first person outside her family who doesn’t condemn her physical appearance or treat her as a nuisance or an obstacle. Even Nora is guilty of such behavior in Lilith’s eyes. As suggested by the sunlit jump rope scene that introduces the dwarfish girl, Lilith is an innocent who’s dazzled by Dr. Mengele’s apparent charm.

That innocence blinds Lilith to the reality that she and the doctor attach considerably different meanings to the latter’s ultimate goal. The girl thinks she has the potential to become the perfect woman envisioned by the doctor. Nazi hunter Nora thus mistakenly believes Lilith is a budding Nazi. It takes a shot in Dr. Mengele’s hotel room to convey the social oppressiveness of his goal without resorting to hateful rhetoric.

Even viewers familiar with Dr. Mengele’s past will be left uncertain by his motivations in interacting with Lilith and her fictional family. His chats with Eva are those reserved for a fellow expatriate from the old country. His quietly standing outside an empty room while classmates Otto and Lilith nearly make out could be protective of Lilith’s near-perfection or her virginity. His reaction when Lilith realizes his true nature could be a sparing of the girl’s feelings or a businesslike cutting of emotional losses.

Nitpickers may feel Puenzo employs obvious visual metaphors such as the image of Lilith’s family’s car and Dr. Mengele’s car following a road into an approaching storm. But that apparent obviousness is redeemed by using those familiar metaphors as ironic counterpoints. Where bright sunlight may have embodied innocence at the film’s beginning, something darker is suggested by the film’s ending.

Puenzo’s film ultimately delivers a chilling object lesson about the ability to recognize evil.

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