Horror stories can come in all forms. The slasher/bloody types are soon forgotten --- it's the ones that are deep-seeded and true that are the most frightening. "The German Doctor" offers a possible, and truly terrifying, recreation of Josef Mengele's life in Argentina after escaping Nazi Germany.
Known as the "Angel of Death" for his horrific experiments with children and pregnant women, Mengele (Alez Brendemühl) continues his sordid work after finding a new home in the mountains of Patagonia, where he takes refuge with an Argentinean family .
Eva (Natalia Oreiro), the mother, is pregnant with her fourth child. Her parents had owned a lovely mountainside hotel, which was left to her. She and her husband Enzo (Diego Peretti) have decided to re-open the inn, along with their three children. Lilith (Florencia Bado), the middle child, was born premature, and has not fully developed in stature. Mengele takes an immediate interest in Lilith, which borders on pedophilia. He convinces Eva to allow him to inject Lilith with growth hormones, against Enzo's wishes.
Meanwhile, the Mossad is searching for Mengele, and an agent, Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger), posing as a photographer, recognizes him and reports his whereabouts. Unfortunately, the locals in Bariloche are still pro-Hitler, and protect and revere Mengele. They will do anything to keep him from being captured --- including murder.
"The German Doctor" is a suspense film based upon the novel "Wakolda" by Lucia Puenzo, the filmmaker. Not much is known factually about Mengele's time in Argentina, but a great deal is suspected. Brendemühl is eerily charming in his portrayal of the evil and fanatical monster preying upon the weak of society. His performance treads a fine line --- never overly smarmy, but always too close and too interested in Lilith to be ignored.
The key to keeping "The German Doctor" from devolving into a complete nightmare is Bado. She is beautifully innocent, and supremely lovely, like her mother. Yet she is intrigued by this tightly-wound older man, who pays an inordinate amount of attention to her. Her Lilith is subtly sexual and still childlike, qualities that may very well have attracted Mengele.
Bariloche, where "The German Doctor" is filmed, is simply gorgeous. At one point in the film, Mengele remarks how much this region of Argentina makes him feel at home. Its resemblance to the Bavarian Alps is startling. It is the dichotomy of the beauty of the setting with his monstrous deeds that make "The German Doctor" so unnerving.
Opinion: See It Now!
In the years following World War II, Argentina became a safe haven for some of the most notorious war criminals in history. Sometimes the citizenry had full knowledge of the men they were harboring, other times they did not. "The German Doctor" tells the partly fictional, partly true story of one family who lived unknowingly with one of Nazi Germany's most heinous figures, Josef Mengele.
Mengele, Hitler's "Angel of Death", was the Auschwitz physician who interpreted the fuehrer's dream of a perfect race to inhuman levels by experimenting on people in a variety of ways. In the film, we see fictionalized, but still incredibly eerie, drawings of Mengele's lab tests and scientific data as they pertained to his "work" on the human body.
He had a particular fascination with twins. Eva (Natalia Oreiro), the pregnant mother in the movie, delivers a set, and although she is wary of this stranger, she trusts his methods even as one of them becomes deathly ill. Mengele also injects Eva's daughter, Lilith (an incredibly mature performance by 12-year-old Florencia Bado), with a growth hormone intended to increase her height. She is ridiculed at school for being small. But Mengele injects her without the permission of Lilith's father, Enzo (Diego Peretti), who is mostly suspicious of the doctor's motives from the onset.
There is a subliminal sexual tension between Mengele and Lilith, and Enzo is the only family member who senses it and stands up to Mengele. Peretti's Enzo is the strongest performance in a movie filled with good ones. Real-life secret agent and Nazi hunter Nora Eldoc is played by Elena Roger. It is Eldoc who contacts colleagues with the certainty that she has found Mengele, but is it enough to prevent his escape to Paraguay?
To play Mengele, 38-year-old director and screenwriter Lucia Puenzo found Alex Brendemühl. She needed someone who could speak German fluently, and who also had a good mastery of Spanish. Brendemühl not only satisfied the language requirements, he also bore an uncanny resemblance, according to Puenzo (she calls it "scary") to the real Mengele.
Based on Puenzo's novel "Wakolda", "The German Doctor" was the winner of nine Sur Awards in 2013 (Argentina's version of the Oscars), including Best Film and a near sweep of the acting awards. It's a meticulous, yet fast-paced feature that showcases Mengele's hidden agenda as he strives for biological perfection, even 15 years after the end of the war. What the movie lacks in chills and thrills is made up for by the methodical unraveling of the truth.
It's quite paradoxical that the unthinkable evil portrayed in the film is contrasted with the exquisite landscape of Argentina. But even more inexplicable is how so many Nazi war criminals --- estimated at 5000 in Argentina alone --- could find shelter and lead normal lives in open, democratic societies in South America. This is a question for another movie, another time.
Opinion: See It Now!