Review: The German Doctor


The German DoctorFollowing the fall of the Third Reich and the liberation of the German Nazi concentration camps, many of the leaders directly involved fled to South America. One of the most famous of those officers was Josef Mengele, a physician in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Due to his barbaric and deadly human experiments performed on prisoners as well as role in the section process for the gas chamber executions, Mengele was known as "The Angel of Death."

Argentian filmmaker Lucia Puenzo's novel Wakolda focuses on this infamous man and the true story of an Argentinian family who unknowingly boarded Mengele at their home, now adapted by Puenzo as  the movie The German Doctor. Whereas the novel is told through Mengele’s point of view during his exile in South America, the film instead relies more on 12-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado). Born premature and having suffered from several illnesses at an early age, Lilith is an underdeveloped prebuscent girl who struggles to fit in at her new German-run school in Patagonia.

A chance encounter while traveling to their new home in the tourist town of Bariloche brings Lilith's family, including her pregnant mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and dollmaker father Enzo (Diego Peretti), to the attention of a mysterious and charming German doctor (Alex Brendemühl). The doctor quickly entrenches himself in Lilith and Eva’s favor, offering to help with their growth and medical care. He becomes the family's benefactor as he helps Enzo mass produce his designs at a doll factory.

Puenzo lets the audience know within the first act of The German Doctor  that this mysterious doctor is the notorious Mengele. He's received as a hero by fellow Nazis also hiding out in Bariloche, but photographer Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger) -- who is also a Mossad spy and victim of one of Mengele's sterilization practices -- recognizes him immediately. This approach increases the tension as we witness the interaction between the doctor and his naive victims. When asked by Eva whether he's had any experience with childbirth and twins, his reply "hundreds" has a chilling impact. Young Lilith becomes lethargic and experiences pain in her bones as the doctor increases her growth hormone.

Meanwhile agents of the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, are hot on the trail of the notorious doctor. News of the capture and extradition of fellow SS officer Adolf Eichmann spurs Mengele into flight to Paraguay, but not before greatly impacting the family who has placed their trust in him.

The film is well cast, with superb performances and interactions between Brendemühl and Bado as doctor and willing subject. Roger could be Kathleen Quinlan's doppelganger, and brings strength and determination to the role of Nora.

The German Doctor supports the concept of "the banality of evil" -- that normal-looking and unassuming people can be capable of atrocities -- with Brendemuhl effortlessly portraying Mengele as a refined and pleasant man.

The musical score and production design in the snow-covered small town of Bariloche add to the ominous and isolated tone of The German Doctor. The contrast between Enzo's carefully handcrafted dolls and the factory-produced and perfectly produced replicas -- that bear a striking resemblance to Lilith -- offers frightening subtext into the doctor's actions based on our knowledge of his history.

The cinematography and lighting also strengthen the dark tone of this movie. Voyeuristic shots of the doctor watching the family and friends dancing as well as Nora's clandestine photos of the elusive doctor as evidence of his presence in Bariloche support the secretive nature of The German Doctor.

The German Doctor is a suspenseful representation of a chapter in the story of Mengele, and well worth watching. I found the story intriguing enough that I've added Wakolda to my summer reading list.