Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Naughty Nazis in Patagonian Argentina in 1960: Lucía Puenzo's THE GERMAN DOCTOR arrives

A huge region of both Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is often known for its desolate areas. It's a place people go to be alone. (Bruce Chatwin was a fan.) In her new film, THE GERMAN DOCTOR (Wakolda is the original Argentine title), writer/director Lucía Puenzo takes us there, but to a very different area: a gorgeous resort nestled in a mountain village next to a beautiful lake. The filmmaker also travels back in time to 1960s, a period far enough after World War II that people were beginning to move on from the Nazi atrocities to find other subjects to explore. In Argentina, however -- a country that managed to make itself into a haven for both Jews and their persecutors -- and particularly in out-of-the-way places like Patagonia, a hive of what we might call early neo-Nazis could (and evidently did) thrive.

Ms Puenzo's film (the writer/director is pictured at left) is based on what is said to be a true account of a Patagonian family who, without knowing it, housed for a time one of the world's most infamous doctors, Josef Mengele, (played by that excellent Spanish actor, Àlex Brendemühl, below), an escaped Nazi who enjoyed experimenting on concentration camp inmates and evidently took this passion with him to South America. Back in 2007 Puenzo gave us a film, XXY, that remains one of the best ever to deal with the condition and problems faced by a gender "other" and her family. In her new film, the 12-year-old girl, Eva (played by Florencia Bado), who provides the heart of this movie, is also a kind of "other," as she has inherited a gene that makes her unusually short. Do you think the good doctor might be interested in her? Were the Nazis naughty?

Puenzo has an un-pushy, easy style that allows her stories to appear to tell themselves, while letting character evolve and situation arise with less melodrama that you might expect, given the choice of her subjects.

Here, the filmmaker begins with the sight of a strange doll that means a lot to our protagonist, her father (who made it), and finally to Mengele. The doll's a symbol, all right, but it is one that, like much else in Puenzo' work, does not scream for attention but rather commands it by virtue of the doll's importance to the people we're observing. (The movie's original Argentine title, Wakolda, is actually the name given by Eva to her doll.)

The filmmaker achieves a good deal of suspense via a sub-plot involving a teacher/photographer/Israeli spy at the school that Eva attends (during the course of the movie Adolf Eichmann is caught by the Israelis, with Mengele high on the "To Capture" list). There is also suspense and a pulling in two directions, as the doctor lets it be known that he can cure Eva's too-short stature (her schoolmates, some of whom are shown above, have taken to calling her "dwarf"). But is this indeed a cure, or simply further experimentation?

Eva's mother (Natalie Oreiro, above), pregnant with twins (yet another inducement/temptation/opportunity for our Nazi doctor), wants Eva to continue growing physically. Her father (Diego Peretti, below, right), who does not trust the doctor, will have none of it, even after the medicine man makes him a solid offer to fund mass production of the doll in porcelain.

All of this activity spins around interestingly, as we become more and more aware of the growing crush our little girl has on Mengele. (Ms Bado is shown at right, with her "mentor," in the two photos below.) In a Hollywood version, all this would be brought to a pulse-racing, melodramatic finale. Instead Puenzo keeps it distanced and cool. Viewers like me will appreciate this reticence (in its home country, the movie took the year's Best Picture award); others may want more bells and whistles.

TrustMovies is pleased with the way Puenzo handles it all, though he admits the movie does not quite rise to the level of XXY, perhaps because, in that earlier film, the subject was both original and shown in a bracing, dramatic, unsentimental manner. While this film is equally unsentimental (this seems a hallmark of the filmmaker), folk my age by now have seen an awful lot of Hitler/Eichmann/Mengele movies, and so some of the bloom of the bizarre has withered from those thorny roses.

Yet the combination of excellent acting, quiet approach to the material, gorgeous locations and of course the subject itself should be enough to bring an audience of foreign-film lovers into theaters for this limited release, and more to VOD & DVD when the movie reaches those venues.

From Samuel Goldwyn Films and running just 93 minutes, The German Doctor opens this Friday in New York City at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles at The Landmark, in Berkeley at Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas, and in San Francisco at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema. Starting the following week and continuing over the next month or so, the film will hit theaters in cities across the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

No comments: