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!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • 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.