The German Doctor
Opens Fri., May 23 at Sundance and Lincoln Square. Rated PG-13. 93 minutes.
There’s a whole genre of movies about fearless Nazi hunters, putting Nazis on trial for war crimes, and so forth. (Marathon Man and The Boys From Brazil are just two examples.) But what about Nazis proposing to finance a line of handmade dolls in 1960 Argentina? Helmut Gregor, as he calls himself, is a polite, mustachioed physician who speaks passable Spanish and looks a bit like Robert Shaw. He’s nice to children and especially considerate of pregnant women. Might you be expecting twins, mein Frau? Perhaps ve should run some tests. I might prescribe some special vitamins—for the health of die Kinder, of course.
The fugitive Nazi here is Dr. Josef Mengele, who befriends the family running an inn in Patagonia’s southern lake district (which reminds him of home, natürlich). Adapting her own novel, Lucía Puenzo frames this loosely fact-inspired account from the perspective of 12-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado), who’s blue-eyed, blonde, and unnaturally small for her age. Naturally Dr. Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl) wants to help this little doll, which also brings him into contact with her parents Eva and Enzo—the latter also a dollmaker. (Here let’s note that undersized Lilith bears comparison to the little hermaphrodite of Puenzo’s XXY, seen at SIFF ’08; pubescence makes them both objects of scientific scrutiny.)
What Puenzo really gets right is the hermetic isolation of Bariloche, where clannish German-speaking immigrants created their own community and schools long before Hitler. Newcomer Lilith attends such a school, where she encounters photographer/archivist Nora (Elena Roger), whose camera keeps wandering in the direction of Dr. Gregor. Meanwhile teenagers dance to jukebox pop and Gregor drives an enormous new Pontiac; Lilith’s coming-of-age will belong to the Beatles era, and World War II seems but a distant memory here. The evils of the Old World are fading into the be-bop-a-lula of the new, and the difference between them is being forgotten, too.
The German Doctor is less successful as a thriller than for its creepy historical milieu. Mengele/Gregor doesn’t do much besides take notes and administer injections; Nora snaps her clandestine photos; and Lilith eventually gets kissed (and has her first period). That this runty girl and this mad scientist should meet is fit for conjecture, but Puenzo’s movie feels incomplete. The greater historical curiosity is how Mengele remained free for another 20 years, unpunished and outliving Elvis. (He died of natural causes in 1979.) Lilith will survive to narrate her tale; Mengele remains forever the enigma.