The Arty Semite

Josef Mengele in Patagonia

By Allen Ellenzweig

  • Print
  • Share Share

It seems apt that a renowned figure of evil — the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death,” notorious for his cold-blooded “selections” at Auschwitz — should inspire a film whose mood is at once mysterious and sinister, yet whose visual style is strangely poetic, perhaps even terrifyingly beautiful.

In the space of 93 carefully calibrated minutes, Argentine director Lucía Puenzo fashions a fictionalized account of the “missing” 6 months in Mengele’s Argentinean sojourn, roughly from the time of Adolf Eichmann’s capture in Buenos Aires by Mossad agents to Mengele’s later reappearance in Paraguay. Using what historical evidence there is, “The German Doctor” — based upon an earlier novel of Puenzo’s called “Wakolda” — imagines the Nazi physician living in plain sight as José Mengele, experimenting with cattle genetics and befriending a local family who are starting a new life managing a resort hotel in the remote, and remotely scenic, Patagonian town of Bariloche.

The father, Enzo, is a sympathetic but gruffly silent figure who is proud of his three children, especially his middle girl, Lilith, an observant undersized child who at 12 looks 10. She was born prematurely. Yet she is drawn to the handsome and enigmatic German doctor, and he equally to her in a series of casual encounters just barely suggesting a queasy pedophilia. The mother, Eva, is of German background and shares the doctor’s language and even, perhaps, his cultural sensibility; by the German doctor’s formal and correct bearing, he permits Eva, now on her fourth pregnancy, to believe in his medical skills, and his recommendations for young Lillith to undergo a series of growth injections that he will administer. Lilith, the object of persistent schoolyard taunts, sees the doctor’s remedy as the promise of a more normal life. Yet Enzo does not see the need for a risky procedure on his beloved daughter. He argues against it, telling Lilith that each child is unique and valuable as she is; there is nothing wrong with her. He forbids his wife to allow the German doctor to treat the girl.

Amidst this central conflict, young Lilith, marvelously well played by newcomer Florencia Bado, is the prize between opposing forces. And in a narrative that might be critiqued for being occasionally elliptical, director Puenzo balances an understated series of subplots and haunting visual motifs that play out in the sparely populated tourist hotel, in the authoritarian German school, and against the panorama of the Patagonian steppes. Shot in (now) old-fashioned CinemaScope, her images capture the sweeping drama of the Andean foothills, with steely grey skies sprinkling a soft, balletic snowfall or drenching the long and winding dirt roadways in torrents. Moodily grey and unforgiving, the skies and rugged landscapes underline the rigorous, controlled performance of Alex Brendemühl as Mengele, whose soothing manner belies his moral rot. That he is not simply what he appears to be, a caring physician, is evident in the obsessively detailed diary sketches and notations to which we become privy, where each member of the Argentine family — from the well proportioned teenage son to the stunted Lilith, to Eva’s expected twins — are examined as potential guinea pigs for Mengele’s eugenicist engineering.

At school, little Lilith attracts one of the few decent boys in a crowd of galumphing bullies — and we become aware that her classmates are largely the sons and daughters of unreconstructed Nazis who have found refuge in this outlying region of South America. The school is both a controlled environment for its young wards and a front through which money and aide to Mengele may be transmitted. Integrated into this mix of unrepentant fascists is the school photographer, Nora, an attractive woman whose sexual appeal draws one of the young administrators abetting Mengele. Soon enough we come to understand that Nora is playing the part of a sexually pliant colleague when, in fact, she is an Israeli agent tracking Mengele’s movements.

The film proceeds in the direction of a slow-moving thriller, motivated less by action than by psychology. This takes the form of a growing unease on the part of its several characters, young and adult alike. Lilith’s discovery of her burgeoning womanhood coincides with an awakening to the moral complexities of the adult world; and Enzo and Eva’s quandary in facing the true character of the German doctor head them toward a fresh reckoning with the threat his presence portends even as, at a desperate moment, they render their newborn twins into his care. Meanwhile, we feel the clock ticking as Israeli Nazi hunters proceed against their high-stakes prey, this German doctor who already, for two decades, has managed to stay a step ahead of discovery.

If, at times, Puenzo’s narrative seems unnecessarily ambiguous in clarifying the moral position of some of its characters — Was Eva’s German background tainted by fascist sympathies? At what moment and why exactly does Lilith become disenchanted with the German doctor? — the overall narrative sense remains clear. While the Third Reich may have been destroyed, a sufficient number of the faithful transferred their mad passions to another continent, where, in quiet complicity, large numbers of their neighbors, Latin American citizens, permitted them to flourish. “The German Doctor” may not be a strict history lesson, depending as it does on an imaginative reconstruction of events, but it is built around some key known facts to render a grim and quixotic portrait of a man and a secret society in thrall to their own demons.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The German Doctor, Lucía Puenzo, Josef Mengele, Film

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.