Lucia Puenzo is both a director and a novelist, but she is foremost a storyteller. The Argentine filmmaker adapted her latest entry, the dark historical drama “The German Doctor,” from her fifth novel. It follows a wayward family in 1960 Patagonia that takes in the devil in a blue sedan, an enigmatic figure who turns out to be Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor who treated humans like entomological test subjects before fleeing to South America, where he died in exile.
Mengele (Alex Brendemuhl) takes an especially creepy interest in the small young daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado), and it’s through her eyes we come to see the banal face of evil. In 2013, “The German Doctor,” now in select stateside theaters, screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard before opening to a considerably wide audience in Argentina, Puenzo’s native country, which submitted the film for Best Foreign Language consideration at the 2014 Oscars.
We spoke on the phone about the film, for which she interviewed Argentine documentarians, historians, endocrinologists and other experts to tap the pulse of the story: how do you measure the ethics in the hands of a doctor who was also a tortured and murderous madman?
Ryan Lattanzio: Why did you need to tell this story?
Lucia Puenzo: When I wrote the novel I had no clue that it would be a film. It started as short stories about this teenage girl who fell in love with this German man without knowing what kind of monster he was, and very slowly that became a novel. During the year-and-a-half when I was writing the novel, I was talking to historians about all that happened with [Josef Mengele] in my country; there were so many incredible facts, the impunity with which he lived in Buenos Aires. He became very important in the story so I wrote a novel while discovering all this information.
What’s it like to adapt your own novel to the screen?
It’s really true when they say that it’s tougher than making an adaptation of another writer’s novel. It’s a longer way. You have to be really strict with your own material in the sense that many things probably should have died earlier than they did. I tended to take longer to accept that certain things could not make it into the film but at the same time, it’s a lot of fun. Part of the experiment I had already done in my second film [2009’s “The Fish Child”], an adaptation of my first novel. But in both films it seemed like an experiment to make very different stories and films from the same cloth, not only with a change in point-of-view, and that’s what happened in “The German Doctor.” The film and the novel have very little to do with one another.
What sacrifices were made between the book and the film version?
It was basically a change in point-of-view. The novel is seen through the eyes of this fanatic, Josef Mengele, who sees the world as his laboratory, and sees everyone as an individual in his own experiments and that’s the tension of the novel. In the film it’s exactly the opposite: he’s a stranger, whom we know nothing about, seen through the eyes of a girl and how she understands what is happening. The film has a strange kind of tension where we know more than the characters all the time. In a way, it’s being completed with information the spectator already has on Mengele and Argentine history; we know what happened and we know who he is but the characters don’t know.
There haven’t been many films made about the life of Josef Mengele, though we all know who he was. Do you think people are afraid to touch that topic?
Who knows? I’ve asked myself that same question so many times. I think there are so many stories to tell not only about him and all his hideouts in Argentina but also, so many other Nazis operated in my country, where we haven’t had any fiction films of this subject. We’ve had some very good documentaries but not fiction, and almost no literature. There are a few novels you can count with one hand.
The film is quite visually striking. Was the possibility of a film on your mind when you were originally writing the novel?
I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to shoot this film. There was so much in the visual aspects. It was so tempting for me, not only the huge landscapes, but it is also nice to shoot all the world of details, of the notebooks, the microscopes. I think that the cinema language of the film is in that contrast.
How did you find your Lilith, the young girl through whose eyes the story is told? This is Florencia Bado’s first role, and she’s remarkable.
I love working with children and with teenagers. It was tough casting because we had to find a very young girl. It was not the same with “XXY,” where we actually shot with an actress who was 24 — though she looked 15, she was a woman by then. In “The German Doctor,” we had to find a little girl who was 11 or 12 years old but she had to look like she was nine or eight. We spent months looking for her. We saw hundreds of girls, but we found her outside of school. She had never done a film before, but was very eager to do it.
Do you go into production with your vision set in stone, or are your shoots more collaborative?
From pre-production and even in the final draft, we had a clear idea of the cinematography. While shooting, as a director, the hours of being in the shoot help you in many ways. For one, it’s always the same thing: we know each other very well, and we are very close friends, many of us, outside the shooting. So it’s very powerful to know I can trust them and give them the first draft of the script. They’re in it from the very beginning and while shooting I began to realize that the job of a director is only 50 percent what goes on in front of the camera, and 50 percent what’s going on on the other side of the camera.
You wrote several TV series and miniseries in the early 2000s before your first feature, “XXY,” in 2007. So many directors are moving over to television. Ever think about returning to TV?
I wrote TV for many years before doing films and now, there’s a possibility of doing a series again sometime in the future. It has been tough. If you feel cinema goes fast, you can’t imagine television. I prefer the worlds of literature and writing over TV.
Trailer below. Beth Hanna’s review is here.