Lucia Puenzo, director, producer & writer (based on her own novel)
Starring: Alex Brendemuhl (Josef Mengele), Florencia Bado (Lillith), Diego Peretti (Enzo), Natalia Oreiro (Eva), Elena Roger (Nora Eldoc)
Acclaimed Argentine director and writer Lucia Puenzo’s The German Doctor offers a fictional account of an event that could have taken place in 1960 involving the notorious Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele. The film premiered a year ago at Cannes, where it was nominated, but didn’t win, an award in the Un Certain Regard section. Later in 2013, it was the official Argentine entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar but it didn’t end up being nominated. However, the film did win two awards, including best director, in the prestigious New Latin American Cinema festival in Havana in December.
From 1949 to his death in 1979, the notorious Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele lived in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, evading capture by Israel’s special intelligence force, the Mossad. In Puenzo’s film, Mengele is keeping a low profile, on the run in the remote Southern region of Patagonia, when he meets a family who are retuning to the area to run a hotel.
Mengele is immediately interested in Lillith, the frail daughter of German speaking Eva and her inventor husband Enzo. His precise polite manner and wide knowledge endears him to Lillith and Eva but not to Enzo. Mengele, using a pseudonym, is working for a veterinary service, and has enough money to offer six months rent at Eva and Enzo’s hotel. When Mengele invests money in a mechanical doll business that could make Enzo a fortune, even the wary father and husband is temporarily won over.
There is a German school in the area of Patagonia where Eva and Enzo live and one sees that it’s a cover for neo-Nazi activity. Lillith attends the school, where she is mercilessly derided as a dwarf, which allows the doctor the opportunity to start injecting her with growth medicine. At the same time, Eva becomes pregnant with twins—a Mengele obsession—so he gives her pills, which he says will help her.
It’s 1960, the year when the Mossad kidnap Adolf Eichmann and bring him to Israel for his famous trial. The Israelis are closing in on Mengele—the librarian and photographer at the school is a Mossad agent—just as Eva gives birth prematurely and Enzo finds out that Lillith is ill from Mengele’s growth injections. The German Doctor moves inexorably to a heated conclusion as Mengele finds it hard to leave his experiments with Eva and Lillith but knows that the Mossad may capture him if he stays in Argentina.
Lucia Puenzo has created a remarkable film, filled with well-drawn characters, but she has, effectively boxed herself into a trap. We know that Mengele has to escape, but the film is a mainly a thriller. To make the film work—and it does—Puenzo has made Lillith the narrator. Through the eyes of a precocious 12-year-old girl, we see how a man who seems so gentle at first gradually acquires a monstrous dimension.
The film also suffers somewhat from heavy symbolism. Enzo’s dolls, a poetic hobby at first, gradually become uniform as Mengele’s business model takes over the initially pure inspiration. The school, too, turns quickly into a neo-Nazi institution, designed to scare the free spirited Lillith into conformity.
The German Doctor is a stylish film made by a director of real talent. It’s a good film but not a great one—as testified by a record of nominations, not wins. Is it worth seeing? Yes, but potential viewers should decide whether the content holds enough fascination for them.