“The German Doctor” (“Wakolda”)
A Mysterious Doctor
In Patagonia in 1960 a German doctor (Alex Brendemühl) meets an Argentinean family and follows them on a long desert road to a small town where the family will be starting a new life. Eva (Natalia Oreiro), Enzo (Diego Peretti) and their three children welcome the doctor into their home and entrust their young daughter, Lilith (Florencia Bado), to his care, not knowing that they are harboring one of the most dangerous criminals in the world. At the same time, Israeli agents are desperately looking for the German doctor to bring him to justice. The film is based on the novel by Lucia Puenzo who also the filmmaker. The plot follows Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” a German SS officer and a physician at the Auschwitz concentration camp; in the years he spent “hiding”, along with many other Nazis, in South America following his escape from Germany. Mengele was considered to be one of WWII’s most heinous Nazi war criminals.
We immediately know that something is afoot—the music drones, there is a storm and the doctor sends off ominous vibes. We see the doctor become medically fascinated with Lilith. The looks that pass between the two are filled with mutual interest; Lilith is having her first crush while the doctor’s concerns are clinical to the point of inhumanity.
The director is careful not to over-signpost the historical significance of a man who — with a crisp enigmatic mode of charisma delivered expertly by Brendemühl — seduces the family into letting him live with them. However the film loses some of its grip in the familial subplots. Enzo, the father is a doll-maker who wants to make all his toys perfectly identical.
In the opening scenes of this historical drama we see a distinguished looking German gentleman accosting a traveling family of 5 to ask if he may follow behind them as he is unsure about driving alone on the desolate dirt roads in the middle of the vast plains of Patagonia. The family is heading south to the small lakefront town of Bariloche to re-open a Hotel that once was thriving concern when another generation of the family ran it. The German never reveals much about his own destination or any of his plans for staying in this country far from home. This adds to the suspense early on. When they finally arrive the German, who the family learns is either a Doctor or Scientist, insists on renting a room from them and to overcome their reluctance sweetens his request by overpaying. He sensed that the family has little cash. Eva the heavily pregnant mother is German speaking, as are so many of the local residents as the best school in the area was the German one, and she welcomes him into their home. Her husband Enzo is a struggling doll-maker and although a man of few words and simple tastes, he is the only one in the family who is not impressed with the charm onslaught from this very creepy stranger in their midst.
The ‘Doctor’ is particularly “smitten with” Lilith the 12 year old of the family who has always been much smaller than the norm for her age ever since she was born 2 months premature. Soon he is trying to persuade the parents that with the hormone treatment that he has been working on, he can improve Lilith’s growth rate dramatically. They are all initially reluctant to even consider this course of action but Eva relents after Lilith suffers another brutal day of taunting at her school because of her size. However she insists that they keep the news of this change of heart from Enzo until at least Lilith starts gaining some height. Once the ‘Doctor’ gains Eva’s confidence he turns his attention to her, especially when he discovers that she is going to give birth to twins. (We eventually find out that he has some plans of his own for these yet unborn babies).
This filmmaker never hides the fact that the Doctor is none other than Josef Mengele the notorious Nazi who did barbarous and inhuman genetic experiments on the inmates of Auschwitz earning himself the nickname of “The Angel of Death”. It was believed that after the War he, like so other high ranking Nazis, fled to South America where he continued his cruel work on pregnant women and children until his death in Brazil in 1979.
The story unfolds slowly and tension builds with the insinuation of what the doctor is really up to as he slowly worms his way into this family’s lives. It is only the German School Archivist that suspects and confirms his true identity and she is anxious that he is caught and out in trial for his war crimes just like Eichmann who Israelis had recently captured. Unfortunately, a wide network of loyal Nazi Party supporters protects him so he will always manage to avoid this completely.
The movie succeeds first and foremost because of the very strong and sinister performance by Brendemuhl as Mengele and secondly because of the bleak setting of the film giving it a sinister tone throughout. Brendemühl exudes a “reptilian combination of charisma and menace. He is solicitous, attentive, and handsome, but with a posture that’s just a little too erect and a searching gaze that’s a little too clinical”. Lilith and her family never seem to realize quite who they’re dealing with, but we suspects early on that he is Josef Mengele, a suspicion that’s soon confirmed. That revelation is unveiled in an almost offhand way that’s typical of the film’s matter-of-fact take on even the most incredible events, a reflection of the sensibility of its smart but sheltered young narrator, who notices far more than she can comprehend.
The story is a fictional account of an actual six-month period during which Mengele was on the run, living incognito to evade the Mossad agents who were extraditing Nazi war criminals for trial in Israel. For most of his 35 years in South America, though, the doctor hid in plain sight, often under his own name, and this film makes it easy to imagine how that could have happened.
It is unsettling to watch this pathologically self-assured sociopath worm his way into the heart of a sensitive girl and her family. The magnificent, sparsely populated settings underscore the family’s vulnerability, particularly in the beginning, when the doctor’s sedan glides behind their truck on an otherwise deserted highway. But the fictional story is too neatly predetermined to feel truly creepy. Much more unnerving is the nonfictional backdrop against which the fictional story unfolds. What really got to me was when admiring young German-Argentineans who often hovered near the doctor, offering their adulation and support to the man they know to be Auschwitz’s Angel of Death. When the doctor asked one of these eager acolytes for help in escaping the Israelis, the man was thrilled to be of service. “Anyone would be honored,” he said. Such is the world we live in.