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How 'The German Doctor' Director Lucia Puenzo Found a Film in the Pages of Her Own Novel About Josef Mengele

Interviews
by Ryan Lattanzio
April 29, 2014 3:02 PM
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Lucio Ramirez Lucia Puenzo

Lucia Puenzo is both a director and a novelist, but she is foremost a storyteller. The Argentine filmmaker adapted her latest entry, the dark historical drama "The German Doctor," from her fifth novel. It follows a wayward family in 1960 Patagonia that takes in the devil in a blue sedan, an enigmatic figure who turns out to be Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor who treated humans like entomological test subjects before fleeing to South America, where he died in exile. 

Mengele (Alex Brendemuhl) takes an especially creepy interest in the small young daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado), and it's through her eyes we come to see the banal face of evil. In 2013, "The German Doctor," now in select stateside theaters, screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard before opening to a considerably wide audience in Argentina, Puenzo's native country, which submitted the film for Best Foreign Language consideration at the 2014 Oscars.

We spoke on the phone about the film, for which she interviewed Argentine documentarians, historians, endocrinologists and other experts to tap the pulse of the story: how do you measure the ethics in the hands of a doctor who was also a tortured and murderous madman?

Ryan Lattanzio: Why did you need to tell this story?

Lucia Puenzo: When I wrote the novel I had no clue that it would be a film. It started as short stories about this teenage girl who fell in love with this German man without knowing what kind of monster he was, and very slowly that became a novel. During the year-and-a-half when I was writing the novel, I was talking to historians about all that happened with [Josef Mengele] in my country; there were so many incredible facts, the impunity with which he lived in Buenos Aires. He became very important in the story so I wrote a novel while discovering all this information.

What's it like to adapt your own novel to the screen?

It's really true when they say that it's tougher than making an adaptation of another writer's novel. It's a longer way. You have to be really strict with your own material in the sense that many things probably should have died earlier than they did. I tended to take longer to accept that certain things could not make it into the film but at the same time, it's a lot of fun. Part of the experiment I had already done in my second film [2009's "The Fish Child"], an adaptation of my first novel. But in both films it seemed like an experiment to make very different stories and films from the same cloth, not only with a change in point-of-view, and that's what happened in "The German Doctor." The film and the novel have very little to do with one another.

What sacrifices were made between the book and the film version?

It was basically a change in point-of-view. The novel is seen through the eyes of this fanatic, Josef Mengele, who sees the world as his laboratory, and sees everyone as an individual in his own experiments and that's the tension of the novel. In the film it's exactly the opposite: he's a stranger, whom we know nothing about, seen through the eyes of a girl and how she understands what is happening. The film has a strange kind of tension where we know more than the characters all the time. In a way, it's being completed with information the spectator already has on Mengele and Argentine history; we know what happened and we know who he is but the characters don't know.

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