A smooth blend of history, horror and adolescent unease, the Argentinean drama “The German Doctor” imagines events that could have transpired during an unaccounted-for six-month period in the life of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele.
Employing a naturalistic approach to a plot that may suggest “The Boys of Brazil” meets “Rosemary’s Baby,” writer-director Lucia Puenzo doesn’t deliver sizzling suspense. But she’s made an efficient arthouse creeper and an affecting coming-of-age story.
Adapting her novel, Puenzo puts forth that Mengele — known as the “Angel of Death” for the horrific experiments he performed on Auschwitz inmates — was staying in the Alpine-styled town of Bariloche, Argentina, during the six months prior to his escape to Paraguay. There, she speculates, he continued his research aimed at a creating a “master race.”
Her scenario begins in 1960 when the doctor (played by Spanish actor Alex Brendemuhl), using an alias, befriends 12-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado) and moves into the hotel that her blinkered mother, Eva (Natalia Oreiro), and only slightly skeptical father, Enzo (Diego Peretti), are opening in the German-rooted community.
Though the audience, alerted by the title and the scary sketchbook drawings, will detect something sinister in the doctor’s interest in Lilith’s size (she’s notably small for her age) and in the pregnancy of Eva (she’s expecting twins, a Mengele fascination), mother and daughter welcome his medical supervision.
The doctor begins administering human growth hormones to Lilith. He oversees the progress of Eva’s pregnancy. He softens Enzo’s resistance by funding the expansion of his doll-making business.
Meanwhile, Israeli agents, alerted to the doctor’s whereabouts by a Mossad spy, conduct a manhunt. Assisted by Nazi-sympathetic locals, the doctor engineers his successful escape.
The creation of fiction from real-life figures as monstrous as Mengele is always problematic, and Puenzo sometimes fares simplistically. Her depiction of the blond, blemish-free dolls Enzo mass produces at the instruction of the doctor proves more heavyhanded than insightful, for starters.
But the film is stilll an absorbing drama that satisfies on several levels. As a horror story, it’s appropriately disturbing. As a presentation of the Nazi mentality, and as an examination of how it continued, long after the war, to infect the atmosphere in pockets of South America, and how everyday Argentineans helped sorts like Mengle avoid prosecution, it also delivers.
And as with Puenzo’s “XXY,” the film qualifies as an unusual, involving coming-of-age tale, addressing teenhood challenges both common and extraordinary via the experience of a deserving young character. Bado’s natural and convincing performance enables Lilith to transcend the level of a child-in-danger device and seriously involve viewers in her predicament and awakening.
The German Doctor ★★★
Starring Alex Brendemuhl, Natalia Oreiro, Diego Peretti, Florencia Bado
Written and directed by Lucia Puenzo
Running time 1 hour, 33 minutes