Growing up, I had no real idea about Argentina except that it was the place that many high-profile Nazis fled to after the war, including, some said, Hitler. (They also said somebody had his brain in a jar, but that’s another story.) It was talked about in the same tones reserved for the killer bees, and both might just swarm north to get us all. However, by the time I came of age and learned more, Eichmann had been captured long ago and executed, and Josef Mengele … well, he kind of got away with it, didn’t he? Mossad agents never captured him, and in 1979 he had a stroke and drowned while swimming one day off the coast of Brazil, probably while humming “The Girl from Ipanema.”
The deranged doctor of Auschwitz, the so-called “Angel of Death” never got his day in court.
“The German Doctor” tells a short tale of a time when Mengele (played here with a stoic creepiness by Alex Brendemuhl) stayed in a beautiful lakeside hotel in Bariloche and befriended the family who owned and operated the place. In particular, he befriends 12-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado), who has just started her new school and is ostracized for being too short. Dr. Mengele, hiding under a new name, just so happens to know a lot about human medicine for claiming to be a veteran. Would she like to try some of this experimental growth hormone? As a bonus, Lilith’s mom (Natalia Oreiro) is pregnant with twins, one of Mengele’s specialties for torture in the camps.
The film seems to be half a police procedural — there’s an undercover Mossad agent working nearby, tracking his steps — and half a girl-in-danger thriller. Throw in a coming of age tale, as Lilith is attracted to the handsome doctor and likes the attention, and you have a bit of a muddle.
What’s more interesting — apart from the beautiful Alps-like scenery of the Argentinean mountains — is the post-war Nazi history going on in the margins. The school, which the mother once attended as a child, still has a bit of that Nazi flavor going on. The children are learning German, or are German, and a lot of their teasing of Lilith centers on her “impurity.” Those swastika banners may have been taken down, but one senses they’re in storage. In fact, Mengele spent his early years in Argentinean exile under his own name, unafraid.
But the film, directed and written by Lucia Puenzo, falters when it tries its hand at thrillerdom. It’s not like Mengele is hoping to restart his insane experiment and resuscitate the Third Reich.
Or is he? I’m not too sure what is really going through his head apart from evading capture. And a third act twist where the mother is dependent on Mengele’s skills feels overdetermined, as is the use of dolls throughout as some obvious symbolism. (The father likes them individually made and painted; Mengele wants them mass produced and looking all the same, like Aryan Youth Barbies.)
The subject of former Nazis growing old and hiding out in Argentina, and the people who were complicit in helping them vanish, is an interesting topic for a film. This gets halfway there, but never really engages in the bigger issues.
The German Doctor
Starring: Alex Brendemuhl, Florencia Bado, Natalia Oreiro
Length: 93 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and brief nudity