I’ve always found it fascinating that after World War II some of the Nazi brass found refuge from war crimes tribunals by fleeing to South America. There they lived, some for decades, leading “normal” lives while dodging the Mossad and other assorted Nazi hunters. That these Master Race guys could go from the highest levels of power to working odd jobs and trying to somehow blend in with the local populace amazes me. The German Doctor tells one such story, about the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele’s interactions with a family he runs across while traveling to the Patagonia region long after the war.
Quick refresher on the medical resume of the good doctor: Mengele was a physician at Auschwitz, where he sent God knows how many people to the gas chamber. He is perhaps most famous for conducting all manner of experiments on unwitting or unwilling human subjects. Some of the Nazi higher-ups could probably try to make an “I was just following orders” case for themselves; Mengele was not among them.
Set in the early 1960s, The German Doctor begins with the middle-aged Mengele (Àlex Brendemühl) meeting a family while traveling to the southern end of South America. The road is long and treacherous, and Mengele asks Enzo (Diego Peretti) if he can stick behind the family’s Land Rover for safety. Enzo eyes the stranger suspiciously but agrees, and the two vehicles set off together. Along the way a bad rainstorm forces them off the road and into a farm house, where Mengele talks both to Enzo’s German-speaking wife Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and his slight 12-year-old daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado).
Both women fascinate Mengele — Eva because she’s pregnant, and Lilith because she has a growth disorder that has her stuck in the body of an 8-year-old. He soon begins to insinuate himself into their lives, first by taking up residence at the hotel the family is opening and living in (he pays for six months in advance, an offer too good to pass up), then by offering “treatment” to Lilith that he promises will kickstart her physical development. Enzo forbids it, but soon Eva is bringing the child to Mengele behind his back, and getting a little pregnancy consult on the side.
Despite how that set-up sounds (kind of like the beginnings of a slasher flick perhaps?), The German Doctor plays more like a stately, mannered period piece. It’s beautifully photographed, taking full advantage of the gorgeous Argentinian backdrop. The performances are all measured and solid across the board. But there is also something undeniably creepy about this movie, and I’m not just talking about Enzo’s doll collection. Director Lucía Puenzo (who wrote the book the film is based on) stages many of the scenes as quietly off-putting, especially in the first half, where knowing that Mengele is a monster ratchets up the tension of what might be otherwise banal moments.
There is some genuine suspense in the second half of the film, as an Israeli agent spots Mengele and tries to call in the Mossad before he can wrap up his work with Eva and Lilith and split. But there is also melodrama in spots, and I was also never sure how seriously to take The German Doctor as a piece of historical fiction. Did any of this really happen or is it just a flight of Puenzo’s imagination? And does that even matter?
All that said, The German Doctor is for the most part a fine film and I’m happy to recommend it, especially as an alternative to the the blockbuster season now upon us. Àlex Brendemühl’s performance as Mengele is oddly creepy and worth a look, the images are often striking, and the subject matter is fascinating. Nazis in South America. Weird.