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Review: Argentina’s Outstanding ‘The German Doctor’ Finds a Heart of Darkness in Gorgeous Patagonia

Review: Argentina's Outstanding 'The German Doctor' Finds a Heart of Darkness in Gorgeous Patagonia

In the opening sequence of Lucía Puenzo’s “The German
Doctor,” a family in 1960 Argentina takes a road trip across the wide, Cinemascoped
expanse of Patagonia’s countryside. But they’re not alone. Following closely
behind is a blue sedan, and in it, the Angel of Death — or at least the man
who was given that ominous nickname, the notorious Nazi and Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele (played with cunning charm and sinister by German-fluent Spaniard
Alex Brendemühl).

The family doesn’t know he’s Mengele. And if they do, they
push the information to the back recesses of their brains as they realize that the
man who follows them and insinuates himself into their lives, with ruthless persistence
but seeming harmlessness, can help them in various ways. The daughter of the
family, Lilith (a naturalistic Florencia Bado, making her screen debut), suffers from
stunted growth, and Mengele takes a particular fascination in the young wisp,
intrigued as he is by physical perfection and “purity.” (Several lush montages scan
Mengele’s journals, here recreated and probably prettified for the film,
wherein he obsessively sketches those around him, deconstructing their anatomies like animals in a lab.)

Mengele offers to put Lilith on growth hormones, an option
fretted over by Lilith’s mother (Natalie Oreiro) until she understands her
daughter is tormented daily at school for her unusually small size. Mengele
also puts down money for a doll production company to be headed by Lilith’s
father, Enzo (Diego Peretti), and hands over a handsome sum to stay on for half a year at
the family’s start-up hotel in Bariloche. The city at the foot of the Andes,
which has the kind of alpine beauty that uncannily recalls Germany and
Switzerland, was the home to an insular pro-Nazi German community before, during and
after the war.

The German Doctor” — based on Puenzo’s own novel which
speculates on a murky six-month period Mengele spent in Argentina before escaping
to Paraguay — is a smart and many-layered film that looks with particular
insight at the notion of pure blood versus mixed blood. Puenzo’s way into this
concept is through the dolls Enzo repairs and constructs. Lilith’s favorite
doll is named Wakolda (also the title of Puenzo’s novel), a Mapuche doll with
the dark complexion of Patagonia’s native population. Meanwhile, Mengele zeroes
in on a doll with Aryan features — blonde hair in Heidi braids, blue eyes and “clean”
of marks, moles and freckles — which he pushes Enzo to make in mass
production. The scenes of the dolls being manufactured, as their pink plastic limbs
and heads come out of kilns, is a striking visual reminder of what Mengele was
up to during the war.

As the opening sequence suggests, Lilith’s family can’t
shake Mengele — until, of course, he decides to shake them. But another story
also unfolds in “The German Doctor.” An Israeli spy, Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger), is
undercover as a local librarian in Bariloche. As everyone around Mengele is led
along for his ride, in one way or another, Nora immediately sees him for what he is, and takes action. It’s indicative of Mengele’s brutal nature that,
while Lilith’s family ultimately reels from his presence, Nora suffers a much
worse fate at the hands of the Angel of Death.

“The German Doctor” hits theaters April 25, via Samuel Goldwyn Films. It was Argentina’s official entry to the 2014 Oscars. 

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