It seems apt that a renowned figure of evil — the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death,” notorious for his cold-blooded “selections” at Auschwitz — should inspire a film whose mood is at once mysterious and sinister, yet whose visual style is strangely poetic, perhaps even terrifyingly beautiful.
In the space of 93 carefully calibrated minutes, Argentine director Lucía Puenzo fashions a fictionalized account of the “missing” 6 months in Mengele’s Argentinean sojourn, roughly from the time of Adolf Eichmann’s capture in Buenos Aires by Mossad agents to Mengele’s later reappearance in Paraguay. Using what historical evidence there is, “The German Doctor” — based upon an earlier novel of Puenzo’s called “Wakolda” — imagines the Nazi physician living in plain sight as José Mengele, experimenting with cattle genetics and befriending a local family who are starting a new life managing a resort hotel in the remote, and remotely scenic, Patagonian town of Bariloche.
The father, Enzo, is a sympathetic but gruffly silent figure who is proud of his three children, especially his middle girl, Lilith, an observant undersized child who at 12 looks 10. She was born prematurely. Yet she is drawn to the handsome and enigmatic German doctor, and he equally to her in a series of casual encounters just barely suggesting a queasy pedophilia. The mother, Eva, is of German background and shares the doctor’s language and even, perhaps, his cultural sensibility; by the German doctor’s formal and correct bearing, he permits Eva, now on her fourth pregnancy, to believe in his medical skills, and his recommendations for young Lillith to undergo a series of growth injections that he will administer. Lilith, the object of persistent schoolyard taunts, sees the doctor’s remedy as the promise of a more normal life. Yet Enzo does not see the need for a risky procedure on his beloved daughter. He argues against it, telling Lilith that each child is unique and valuable as she is; there is nothing wrong with her. He forbids his wife to allow the German doctor to treat the girl.
Amidst this central conflict, young Lilith, marvelously well played by newcomer Florencia Bado, is the prize between opposing forces. And in a narrative that might be critiqued for being occasionally elliptical, director Puenzo balances an understated series of subplots and haunting visual motifs that play out in the sparely populated tourist hotel, in the authoritarian German school, and against the panorama of the Patagonian steppes. Shot in (now) old-fashioned CinemaScope, her images capture the sweeping drama of the Andean foothills, with steely grey skies sprinkling a soft, balletic snowfall or drenching the long and winding dirt roadways in torrents. Moodily grey and unforgiving, the skies and rugged landscapes underline the rigorous, controlled performance of Alex Brendemühl as Mengele, whose soothing manner belies his moral rot. That he is not simply what he appears to be, a caring physician, is evident in the obsessively detailed diary sketches and notations to which we become privy, where each member of the Argentine family — from the well proportioned teenage son to the stunted Lilith, to Eva’s expected twins — are examined as potential guinea pigs for Mengele’s eugenicist engineering.
At school, little Lilith attracts one of the few decent boys in a crowd of galumphing bullies — and we become aware that her classmates are largely the sons and daughters of unreconstructed Nazis who have found refuge in this outlying region of South America. The school is both a controlled environment for its young wards and a front through which money and aide to Mengele may be transmitted. Integrated into this mix of unrepentant fascists is the school photographer, Nora, an attractive woman whose sexual appeal draws one of the young administrators abetting Mengele. Soon enough we come to understand that Nora is playing the part of a sexually pliant colleague when, in fact, she is an Israeli agent tracking Mengele’s movements.
The film proceeds in the direction of a slow-moving thriller, motivated less by action than by psychology. This takes the form of a growing unease on the part of its several characters, young and adult alike. Lilith’s discovery of her burgeoning womanhood coincides with an awakening to the moral complexities of the adult world; and Enzo and Eva’s quandary in facing the true character of the German doctor head them toward a fresh reckoning with the threat his presence portends even as, at a desperate moment, they render their newborn twins into his care. Meanwhile, we feel the clock ticking as Israeli Nazi hunters proceed against their high-stakes prey, this German doctor who already, for two decades, has managed to stay a step ahead of discovery.
If, at times, Puenzo’s narrative seems unnecessarily ambiguous in clarifying the moral position of some of its characters — Was Eva’s German background tainted by fascist sympathies? At what moment and why exactly does Lilith become disenchanted with the German doctor? — the overall narrative sense remains clear. While the Third Reich may have been destroyed, a sufficient number of the faithful transferred their mad passions to another continent, where, in quiet complicity, large numbers of their neighbors, Latin American citizens, permitted them to flourish. “The German Doctor” may not be a strict history lesson, depending as it does on an imaginative reconstruction of events, but it is built around some key known facts to render a grim and quixotic portrait of a man and a secret society in thrall to their own demons.