I have given much thought over the years to our ongoing and unending fascination with the Nazis and the Third Reich. Movie after movie, from every angle of the war we continue to examine and tell stories about the 20th Century’s epic battle between good and evil. And perhaps it is because of that pure simplicity: Good versus evil is so innately a part of the human psyche and the ultimate dichotomy which we apply to everything from criminal acts to eating a doughnut every day of our lives. Brilliant portraits of the war continue to be made in film, television and literature, as well as post war stories of both survivors and soldiers. Rarer though are pieces about members of the Third Reich who survived WW2. There was a slate of fantastic post-war films about surviving Nazis released in 1970s; THE NIGHT PORTER, MARATHON MAN, and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. More recently though the subject has all but dropped off save for the highly mediocre adaptation of the Stephen King story APT PUPIL. Now, thankfully, writer and director Lucía Puenzo has brought us the subtly beautiful and chilling THE GERMAN DOCTOR.
Based on true events THE GERMAN DOCTOR tells the story of a physician who skillfully and surreptitiously befriends 12 year old Lilith and her family who run a hotel in Bariloche, Argentina. The doctor, under an assumed name, stays at the family’s hotel and begins ‘treatment’ on Lilith suffers from an irregular growth rate. Unbeknownst to the family he is Josef Mengele the Nazi SS Officer and infamous doctor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Post WW2, in 1949, Mengele, aided by a network of former Nazi officers and sympathizers, was able to escape Europe to Argentina and moved throughout South America one step ahead of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad until his reported death in 1979. Puenzo’s book which she adapted to the screen, while termed a novel, makes the case that Mengele continued to pursue his genetic studies and experiments begun in Auschwitz during his post war life in South America. That is factual and was unbeknownst to me prior to seeing the film. That truth is so hard to believe and, if for no other reason than to shed light on Germans continued collaboration with Mengele in furthering his goals in post war South America, the film serves as an invaluable chronicle of that ongoing evil. If I have one criticism of the film it is that knowledge of Mengele’s role and actions during the war is key to understanding the horror of this story, and helps to convey its authenticity. Younger viewers who may not be familiar with the “Angel of Death” may fail to sense the simmering tension and fear that Puenzo so skillfully communicates in THE GERMAN DOCTOR.
Àlex Brendemühl plays Mengele and masterfully conveys both a shadowy charisma and murderous commitment to his aim of creating a ‘master race.’ His unwavering pursuit of that goal, despite Hitler’s death, the demise of the Third Reich and being pursued at every turn, is astounding and horrifying. The precociously beguiling Lilith, played by Florencia Bado is perched in that moment of youth between girl and young woman and her seemingly innocent solicitation of the doctor’s friendship enlists her in a game for which she is woefully unaware and ill-equipped to engage. The dynamic between Lilith’s parents, played by Diego Peretti and Natalia Oreiro, while taking over the mother’s childhood home/hotel, is appropriately strained and tested with the installation of the doctor, the mother’s pregnancy, and Mengele’s pointed interest in both she and Lilith. Further muddling the picture is Lilith’s attendance at her mother’s former primary school which was clearly created to school the children of Nazi sympathizers residing in Argentina. The murkiness of the characters’ personal boundaries is part of what makes THE GERMAN DOCTOR a far greater film than one which merely presents a cut and dry cat-and-mouse game of a man in hiding.
The film is set in the stunningly beautiful Nahuel Huapi Lake shore region of Bariloche Argentina, a town which was home to many post war Germans and which has a distinctly Bavarian feel to it. Director Puenzo glorifies the beauty of that setting and the town itself becomes a character in the film – a place of hiding, of commission, of fostering the past. Puenzo has constructed a story of clandestinity on multiple levels; several key characters present identities other than who they truly are, Mengele ‘treats’ Lilith in secret, and his own motives, as well as those of others, are unclear. We want to believe that he has genuine affection for Lilith, that he is capable of that, but at film’s end – including a perfectly crafted farewell scene between them – we can’t quite convince ourselves that the doctor is capable of any benevolence whatsoever. There is a fluid poetic synergy between the narrative elements of father Enzo’s doll making and Mengele’s human experimentation, as well as Lilith’s attendance at the same German school her mother attended as a girl. Never lazily succumbing to cheap melodramatic hyperbole or unnecessary action sequences, THE GERMAN DOCTOR is intelligent, skillfully written, incisive and deeply affecting.(4 / 5)
Director: Lucía Puenzo
Cast: Àlex Brendemühl, Florencia Bado, Diego Peretti, Natalia Oreiro, Guillermo Pfening, Elena Roger
Runtime: 93 minutes
Movie Review The German Doctor