The German Doctor Written and directed by Lucia Puenzo, based on her own book; with Alex Brendemuhl, Florencia Bado, Natalia Oreiro, Diego Peretti, Elena Roger
With his handsome looks, icy glare and carefully trimmed mustache, the mad scientist in Argentinean writer and director Lucia Puenzo’s “The German Doctor” looks like a villain from a silent melodrama. He calls himself Helmut Gregor, and it is not clear how quickly Puenzo wants us to realize that he is actually Josef Mengele. Early in the movie we see sketches that can be recognized as taken from the notebooks in which Mengele documented his experiments on twins and pregnant women at Auschwitz. At the end of the movie, the credits explicitly mention Mengele’s name. But unless I missed some important line of dialogue, Mengele is never actually mentioned by name in “The German Doctor,” and the viewers are supposed to come slowly to the realization of his true identity, which is perhaps even meant to surprise them. Since “The German Doctor” was not made primarily for an Israeli audience, I have to wonder how many of those who go to see it will know who Mengele was and react with actual surprise to the revelation of Gregor’s identity. I say this with the optimistic – though probably wrong – assumption that all young Israeli viewers have heard of Josef Mengele. I’m not sure why Puenzo decided to keep Mengele’s story and identity so vague; it must be another manipulation, seemingly presumptuous but actually bland, in a movie that is manipulative throughout. To say that watching “The German Doctor” is unpleasant is an understatement (I found myself wondering, but could not decide, which of the two movies I’ve seen about Mengele was more unpleasant: this one, or Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1978 film “The Boys from Brazil,” where of all people, it was liberal screen icon Gregory Peck who played the Nazi doctor).
Another clue about the hero’s identity lies in the fact that “The German Doctor” takes place in Argentina in 1960. As the story unfolds, we encounter reports in the media about Adolf Eichmann’s abduction to Israel, and we hear that Israeli agents are hunting for another famous Nazi war criminal. Moreover, Puenzo’s fictional film includes as one of its characters a real-life Mossad operative, Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger), who, according to the movie, was the one to spot Mengele and draw Mossad agents to his hiding place. Eldoc appears in some of the most ludicrous scenes of “The German Doctor,” including one in which Gregor threatens her, this time in the style of a James Bond villain, and a scene in which she calls the Mossad agents from a pay phone in the middle of the night, a moment that seems taken from the most elementary kind of thriller.
Early in the movie, Gregor (as I will call him here) forms a relationship with a family that travels to a German-looking part of Argentina to reopen an old hotel they own. Gregor, who presents himself as a veterinarian, manages to befriend the mother, Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and her daughter, 12-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado). He becomes the hotel’s first guest, and the family provides him with ample opportunity to continue his experiments: Eva is pregnant with twins, and Lilith, though nicely Arian in appearance, is small for her age and is therefore bullied by students at her school, which has its share of Nazi characteristics. Gregor wants to give her growth agents that have never been tried on humans before.
Only the father, Enzo (Diego Peretti), suspects that something is off about the good doctor, but then Gregor manages to sway him, too, with an economic scheme that leads the plot towards its most ridiculous element. Enzo makes identical blond china dolls with a beating mechanical heart, and Gregor offers to fund his hobby so that it can become a business. I don’t like thrillers and horror movies that rely on dolls to scare us, and in this case dolls – and all they symbolize – are an especially off-putting addition.
Using all this, Puenzo tries to create a seemingly sophisticated horror film that is actually quite primitive. Although the director tries to disguise this behind an “artsy” exterior, “The German Doctor” has a crude plot driven by ugly sensationalism. There are secret meetings of Nazis hiding in Argentina, hints of the attraction that adolescent Lilith feels for Gregor, and especially far-fetched plot twists that, had they not involved Josef Mengele, might have made “The German Doctor” into one of those films that are so bad they become fun to watch. But the movie is about Mengele, and that should give it a serious dimension and perhaps draw Israeli viewers, who are supposedly interested in any mention of the Nazis, their crimes and their fate. As a result, it is not entertaining, only repugnant.