In the opening sequence of Lucía Puenzo’s “The German Doctor,” a family in 1960 Argentina takes a road trip across the wide, Cinemascoped expanse of Patagonia’s countryside. But they’re not alone. Following closely behind is a blue sedan, and in it, the Angel of Death -- or at least the man who was given that ominous nickname, the notorious Nazi and Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele (played with cunning charm and sinister by German-fluent Spaniard Alex Brendemühl).
The family doesn’t know he’s Mengele. And if they do, they push the information to the back recesses of their brains as they realize that the man who follows them and insinuates himself into their lives, with ruthless persistence but seeming harmlessness, can help them in various ways. The daughter of the family, Lilith (a naturalistic Florencia Bado, making her screen debut), suffers from stunted growth, and Mengele takes a particular fascination in the young wisp, intrigued as he is by physical perfection and “purity.” (Several lush montages scan Mengele’s journals, here recreated and probably prettified for the film, wherein he obsessively sketches those around him, deconstructing their anatomies like animals in a lab.)
Mengele offers to put Lilith on growth hormones, an option fretted over by Lilith’s mother (Natalie Oreiro) until she understands her daughter is tormented daily at school for her unusually small size. Mengele also puts down money for a doll production company to be headed by Lilith’s father, Enzo (Diego Peretti), and hands over a handsome sum to stay on for half a year at the family’s start-up hotel in Bariloche. The city at the foot of the Andes, which has the kind of alpine beauty that uncannily recalls Germany and Switzerland, was the home to an insular pro-Nazi German community before, during and after the war.
“The German Doctor” -- based on Puenzo’s own novel which speculates on a murky six-month period Mengele spent in Argentina before escaping to Paraguay -- is a smart and many-layered film that looks with particular insight at the notion of pure blood versus mixed blood. Puenzo’s way into this concept is through the dolls Enzo repairs and constructs. Lilith’s favorite doll is named Wakolda (also the title of Puenzo’s novel), a Mapuche doll with the dark complexion of Patagonia’s native population. Meanwhile, Mengele zeroes in on a doll with Aryan features -- blonde hair in Heidi braids, blue eyes and “clean” of marks, moles and freckles -- which he pushes Enzo to make in mass production. The scenes of the dolls being manufactured, as their pink plastic limbs and heads come out of kilns, is a striking visual reminder of what Mengele was up to during the war.
As the opening sequence suggests, Lilith’s family can’t shake Mengele -- until, of course, he decides to shake them. But another story also unfolds in “The German Doctor.” An Israeli spy, Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger), is undercover as a local librarian in Bariloche. As everyone around Mengele is led along for his ride, in one way or another, Nora immediately sees him for what he is, and takes action. It’s indicative of Mengele’s brutal nature that, while Lilith’s family ultimately reels from his presence, Nora suffers a much worse fate at the hands of the Angel of Death.
"The German Doctor" hits theaters April 25, via Samuel Goldwyn Films. It was Argentina's official entry to the 2014 Oscars.