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

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! April 29, 2014 at 3:02PM

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.
'The German Doctor'
'The German Doctor'

There haven't been many films made about the life of Josef Mengele, though we all know who he was. Do you think people are afraid to touch that topic?

Who knows? I've asked myself that same question so many times. I think there are so many stories to tell not only about him and all his hideouts in Argentina but also, so many other Nazis operated in my country, where we haven't had any fiction films of this subject. We've had some very good documentaries but not fiction, and almost no literature. There are a few novels you can count with one hand.

The film is quite visually striking. Was the possibility of a film on your mind when you were originally writing the novel?

I think that's one of the reasons I wanted to shoot this film. There was so much in the visual aspects. It was so tempting for me, not only the huge landscapes, but it is also nice to shoot all the world of details, of the notebooks, the microscopes. I think that the cinema language of the film is in that contrast.

How did you find your Lilith, the young girl through whose eyes the story is told? This is Florencia Bado's first role, and she's remarkable.

I love working with children and with teenagers. It was tough casting because we had to find a very young girl. It was not the same with "XXY," where we actually shot with an actress who was 24 -- though she looked 15, she was a woman by then. In "The German Doctor," we had to find a little girl who was 11 or 12 years old but she had to look like she was nine or eight. We spent months looking for her. We saw hundreds of girls, but we found her outside of school. She had never done a film before, but was very eager to do it.

Do you go into production with your vision set in stone, or are your shoots more collaborative?

From pre-production and even in the final draft, we had a clear idea of the cinematography. While shooting, as a director, the hours of being in the shoot help you in many ways. For one, it's always the same thing: we know each other very well, and we are very close friends, many of us, outside the shooting. So it's very powerful to know I can trust them and give them the first draft of the script. They're in it from the very beginning and while shooting I began to realize that the job of a director is only 50 percent what goes on in front of the camera, and 50 percent what's going on on the other side of the camera. 

You wrote several TV series and miniseries in the early 2000s before your first feature, "XXY," in 2007. So many directors are moving over to television. Ever think about returning to TV?

I wrote TV for many years before doing films and now, there's a possibility of doing a series again sometime in the future. It has been tough. If you feel cinema goes fast, you can't imagine television. I prefer the worlds of literature and writing over TV.

Trailer below. Beth Hanna's review is here.

This article is related to: Interviews, The German Doctor , Lucia Puenzo, Cannes Film Festival, Cannes

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.