An Argentinian film, written and directed by Lucia Puenzo who also penned the novel on which it’s based, “The German Doctor” moves slowly and ominously as we meet a handsome motorist who asks a family whether he can follow their car on the dangerous and unfamiliar road to Bariloche. The man is clearly attracted to the pubescent daughter in the family, a beguiling girl named Lilith who, though small for her age, is a bit like Lolita in her forward interest in the stranger. The mother in the family recognizes the man’s accent and begins speaking German to him, establishing that she is the alumna of a German school and the family is returning to Bariloche to re-open her parents’ resort hotel there. Soon after, the man becomes a boarder in the hotel, paying six months rent in advance and his involvement with the family deepens, becoming the fulcrum through which we will guess his identity.
Viewers of a certain age will quickly grasp that this is Joseph Mengele, the notorious Angel of Death at Auschwitz, the man who performed sadistic experiments on Jews and was particularly fascinated by twins as they provided scientific controls for his research into genetics. Rather than make this a straightforward recount of Mengele’s assumed identity and escape, Puenzo has the young girl’s stunted growth, the mother’s pregnancy and the father’s occupation as doll-maker all weave an intricate plot that subtly reveals the sickening truth about the pro-Nazi German community in Argentina after World War II. The closest we get to seeing the actual horrors of the concentration camps is a look at Mengele’s notebooks in which he kept detailed sketches and analyses of his perverse “experiments.” The unfinished and dis-membered dolls that line the father’s work-space are the tragic stand-ins for the million children and five million adult Jews tortured and murdered during the holocaust. The painted and completed dolls become the prototype for the Nazi vision of an Aryan super-race and we soon understand that Lilith is Mengele’s vehicle for expressing it.
Puenzo has made this film for viewers who understand how to fill in the lacunae left by her indirect method of exposition and the movie is more chilling and powerful for this restraint. I’m not sure how much would be understood by a younger generation that knows next to nothing of history but this caveat is not sufficient to detract from a tense and compelling film that should be seen by everyone. Even for those who miss the bigger picture, the smaller story of the relationships between Mengele, the burgeoning adolescent girl and her parents provides sufficient psycho-drama to keep you glued to your seat. The audience I saw it with was stunned into silence as they filed out of the theater; Alfred Hitchcock would have approved.
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