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Argentina’s candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2014 was this chilling drama about Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele (“the Angel of Death”) which imagines an upscale post-Auschwitz life for him in the Andean resort of Bariloche. Then the Israelis capture Adolph Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960, and Mengele flees to a backwater in Paraguay. But all the while, he is continuing his nefarious “experiments,” finding ideal subjects in teenage “Lilith” (Florencia Bado) and her mother “Eva” (Natalia Oreiro) who is pregnant with twins.
The German Doctor (called Wakolda in Argentina) was written & directed by Lucia Puenzo. As a director, Puenzo is superb. The film moves fast and even though we all know the ending–anyone who knows this subject already knows that Mengele was never captured–the suspense is excruciating. The cinematographer, Nicolas Puenzo, turns Bariloche into a haunted dreamscape, and composer Daniel Tarrab’s soundtrack jangles our nerves with increasingly ominous dissonance.
Unfortunately Puenzo is less successful as a screenwriter. There is one especially egregious “and then a miracle occurs” point near the end (when Lilith is suffering from a high fever in one scene but appears to be perfectly fine in the next scene). Perhaps answers are to be found in Puenzo’s novel Wakolda, which seems to have preceded the screenplay. Right now, it is only available in Spanish and German, but it will soon be published in English and available from Amazon.
And yet Alex Brendemühl is so perfect as Mengele–steely, suave, enormously intelligent, totally ruthless–that he makes it impossible to look away. And the picture of life in Bariloche–where Nazis and their fellow travelers create a mini-German Fatherland on obviously friendly soil–will haunt my dreams long after minor plot flaws are forgotten. If I had ever wondered why David Ben Gurion was so determined to put Adolph Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem in 1960, the answer became obvious while watching The German Doctor. The perpetrators and bystanders living in enclaves like Bariloche thought the world had forgotten what the Allies found when they liberated the Death Camps in 1945; only the Jews–and only some Jews at that–were determined to ensure that the world would always remember.
NOTE: When you watch this film–and I hope that you do–your ears are as important as your eyes. Although most of the film is in Spanish, American audiences need to appreciate that Eva often speaks with Herr Doctor in German. There is also a scene in which a photographer named “Nora” (Elena Roger) makes a phone call and when the connection goes through, she begins speaking Hebrew…
Top Photo: Alex Brendemühl is riveting as Nazi War Criminal Josef Mengele.
Middle Photo: One of Puenzo’s inspired inventions is to make Enzo a doll hobbyist. Mengele convinces Enzo to open a doll factory–promising to be his primary investor–which enables Puenzo to create images that strongly evoking Auschwitz, Cambodia, and other genocidal horrors.
Bottom Photo: Mengele is fascinated by “Lilith” (Florencia Bado). Unlike her “perfect” Aryan brothers, Lilith was born premature and stayed sickly as an infant, so she is now undersized and fragile. Although Lilith’s father Enzo objects, Mengele convinces Lilith’s mother Eva that his mysterious injections will make the girl look more “normal,” if not outright cure her.
Photo Credits: ?
QUESTION: Where is Bariloche?
Bariloche is located on the Chilean border in the “Andean Alps” (see blue marker on the map).
Bariloche’s “Sister Cities” include Aspen (in the Colorado Rockies) & San Moritz (in the Swiss Alps).