Fictionalized history in any artistic expression differs from the theories created by revisionists to carve out a narrative that fits their beliefs. Cinematic reinterpretations often, as they should, focus on the characters’ human condition, those emotions or personal plights that never make it to the history books. Audiences and artists are fascinated with the intrigues, romances, and other dramatic situations involving important figures. Despite their unique lives, they are humans beings subjected to the same fears and hopes that everyone else, the historical background just adds to the allure. In these terms is how Argentine director Lucía Puenzo approached her story about a real-life villain and his interactions with the world. Based on the myths and speculation surrounding notorious Nazi physician Josef Mengele, The German Doctor aims to put a face to his evil not in a simplistic manner but with all the complexities that form part of a multifaceted identity. Puenzo shared with us her motivation to write the novel that would turn into this film, the role history played in her creative process, and her opinion on why the myth of a disturbed Nazi doctor is still powerful today.
Carlos Aguilar: This story, The German Doctor, existed first as a novel you wrote, and not it is your film. What was the central idea that interested you?
Lucia Puenzo: The novel emerged first as a tale of a family that crossed paths in the desert route with this German man. From the beginning, what interested me this family and the protagonist, the teenage girl, more than Mengele. He is such a powerful character historically, as powerful as Nazism itself, so these subjects always tend to be the protagonists. What I think is that despite this historical references, Wakolda or The German Doctor is a very intimate story. It is the story of a teenage girl and the way she falls in love with a monster. It is the story of a hunt and of a seduction.
Aguilar: What kind of research was involved to develop this novel that needs great historical context?
Lucia: There was a lot of research, years even. It took a year and a half to write the novel, but the research wasn’t the initial thing that occurred to me. In general, even if I’m dealing with a historical subject, I begin with invention rather than investigation, because I need to understand what is going to be the voice or the tone of the story. Whose point of view is it? Who is telling it?“ How is this character telling it? Therefore, I started writing before doing any research to understand the tone of the novel. It was a novel that needed all this information that I started gathering. While I was writing I was reading books on the subjects, meeting with documentarians and historians, all of who provided me with an immense amount of facts that ended up in the novel and eventually the film. An example is the inclusion of Nora Eldoc, the volunteer for the Mossad.
Aguilar: Did you know you wanted to turn this story into a film from the moment you started writing the novel?
Puenzo: At first I didn’t think about it at all, I didn’t write the novel thinking it would become a film. In the case of my second film The Fish Child (El Niño Pez), I had written the novel about 5 years before I made into a film. In the case of The German Doctor I had published the novel a year before I started writing the script, I even had another project to shoot. But I had this idea of the powerful cinematic language from the novel that I couldn’t let go of. When I started writing the script I thought that maybe someone else would direct it, but then I started to fall for it so much that I left the other project and I put all my time on The German Doctor.
Aguilar: It seems as if the chapter in history about the Nazis escaping to South America is often forgotten, or not amply discussed. Were you trying to revisit these events after the war?
Puenzo: Much more than trying to focus on the battlefield of the war, it was the central place that German doctors occupied within Nazism, the omnipotent and insane idea of wanting to generically modify an entire nation. This idea was not on the outskirts of Nazi ideology, it was the heart of movement, that’s what intrigued me. Mengele is the most extreme expression of this idea.
Aguilar: There is a fantastic analogy your film makes between the mass production f porcelain dolls and Mengele’s deranged plans. Did this come from any historical material or was it completely fictional?
Puenzo: That was one of those facts that emerged while I was doing my research. I was reading books about the Nazi presence not only in Argentina, but all over Latin America, and time and after time this information would come up. Mengele had something to do with these types of dolls, the stories say that he made them and gave them away to his friends as symbols of Nazism in exile. They also say this maybe was because he worked at a toy store. There were many of these stories. When I would ask different historians about these, all of them said that it is all part of a myth. There was a myth circulating among many historians that assured them this really happened. However, this is just a myth, no one will ever know for certain, no one ever saw those dolls with certainty, there are no photographs. For me, just the fact that this story exists is such a vicious and poisonous idea. To think he kept on trying to manipulate other bodies is disturbing, so much that I included in the novel and then in the film.
Aguilar: You seem to be attacked to stories about human physiology, not only here, but also with your previous film XXY, about a hermaphrodite finding her physical and emotional identity.
Puenzo: Evidently this does attract me, if I said no it would be incongruent with the films I’m making [Laughs]. But it is not something I decide consciously. When I wrote Wakolda at first I wasn’t conscious that I was writing about something so close to or that had so many similar elements with XXY. It was just after I was done writing that I noticed it. I think both teenagers in each film have many similarities, and Mengele is the extreme version of the plastic surgeon in XXY. Both stories definitely have several ideas connecting them.
Aguilar: You mention that one the ideas that intrigued the most was the family’s vulnerability in particular the parents. Why is that?
Puenzo: The parents intrigued me in a very special way. They remind me of films like Sophie's Choice, how does someone react while having to make such a terrible decision: having a monster in front of you proposing something revolting, but that at the same time it could save your child. The parents in my film had very different perspectives. The mother comes from German parents, and although she doesn’t have an openly Nazi ideology, she was raised in that environment and she ends up trusting this man [Mengele], more than her husband. He is suspicious of the doctor’s motives because he belongs to a different world.
Aguilar: How difficult was it to find the perfect actor to bring Mengele to life and to an extent humanize him?
Puenzo: The casting process was extremely difficult. It was a character that needed the actor to speak Spanish and German, look alike physically, be able to act the part, and it had to be someone we could pay for. Our film required someone that would support the project fully and beyond the financial aspects. Àlex Brendemühl did it with much excitement. I sent him a picture of Mengele, then I called him and I told him they really looked alike and that he had to play this character. He immediately agreed. It was clear from the novel, and now in the film, that we didn’t want to fall in the stereotype of a “simply evil” character. We didn’t want a villain that you can see coming from miles away because he has written on his forehead how bad he is. It wasn’t the case here, because these men were very complex. They were psychopaths that camouflaged and penetrated our societies like in The Plague by Albert Camus, they were in every corner but no one noticed them.
Aguilar: Despite being a film set against the backdrop of important historical events, it still feels very engaging in an intimate way. How has the film been received by audiences?
Puenzo: Absolutely, I think that even though The German Doctor (Wakolda) is placed in a historical context like this, it is a very intimate story. It is basically four characters inside a hotel. That’s how the story is resolved, that’s how the story was conceived, and that was what grabbed me, more than the historical context. The film has been extremely well received around the world. It keeps on going around, opening in different markets, and connecting with the audience. In Argentina it was seen by over 450, 000 spectators, which is way more than anything we could have imagined. It also connected with very young audiences as well, teenagers and people in their 20s, which we also didn’t expect.
Aguilar: When we published our review for the film back when it was in contention for the Academy Award nomination, we received a couple of comments by people claiming that Mengele was still alive hiding somewhere, their claims seems very vivid, but of course surreal. Why do you think these fantastical stories exist?
Puenzo: This is a character that lived 30 years running away from the Mossad, which was always hot on his heels in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. They never captured him, and he probably died without ever being found, this lends itself for these kinds of conspiracy theories and myths. We can only hope that he died in a prison like many other Nazis that were extradited, and not at the beach in Brazil. He is a character that lends itself to these intriguing stories because they never found him.
Aguilar: The original title of the film is Wakolda, which if I’m not mistaken comes from the indigenous people of the region, how does it relate to the story?
Puenzo. Yes, it’s a Mapuche name. The Mapuche are our indigenous people from the south, the Patagonia. They are a vey wise and luminous ancient cavitation, which is completely opposite to where Nazism was headed. In the novel, the theme of racial purity and the Nazi obsession with it was much more developed.
Aguilar: How did you work with you young actress, Florencia Bado, who played Lilith, given that this is a rather dark tale in which a strange bond between her and the doctor is formed?
Puenzo: We took very good care of her. She was 12 years old when we shot the film, this is her first movie, and she had never even taken an acting class. María Laura Berch, our casting director, and I, we understood that she needed to be taken care of. She didn’t read the script, her parents read it and agreed for her to be in the film. We told her little by little what the story was about. We made sure that she was comfortable and reassure her that we would take care of her. It was a very happy shoot; we went to film on location in Bariloche. We all stayed together in the same hotel where we filmed.
Aguilar: Luis Puenzo, your father, who won the Academy Award for his film The Official Story, how has he influenced your career as a filmmaker?Puenzo: I’m completely surrounded, not only my father, but also my three brothers, and Sergio, my husband, all four of them work in film. Some are writers, or directors, or cinematographers, all of them. I’m surrounded by men that make films, so much that at some point I felt there was no more room in the family for another filmmaker. For many years I was only working as novelist or writing screenplays for others to direct. In terms of my father, if you have 4 children that work in film, then there certainly was a happy, positive influence from him because none us became
an accountant. [Laughs].
The German Doctor opens in L.A. and New York on April 25th, 2014