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Argentine Director Lucia Puenzo Helps Her Country Come to Terms With Its Nazi-Sheltering Past

Interviews
by Inkoo Kang
April 25, 2014 4:00 PM
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Still from "The German Doctor"

Writer-director Lucia Puenzo's historical drama The German Doctor (opening April 25) became a sensation in Argentina last year, ultimately amassing nine Sur Awards (the Argentine Oscars), including Best Film, Best Director, and several acting honors. Set in 1960, the film is an adaptaion of Puenzo's novel Wakolda, which follows a teenage girl whose body stopped growing several years ago. After Wakolda's family moves to the German-friendly town of Bariloche in remote Patagonia, Wakolda's family relies on the medical expertise of a kindly European doctor, later revealed to be the Nazi fugitive Josef Mengele. 

Puenzo talked to Women and Hollywood about her country's haunted past, the real-life female heroine in her story, and the thriving film scene in Buenos Aires for women directors. 

What inspired you to write and later adapt the novel Wakolda?

I was more concerned about the family and the teenage girl who becomes completely fascinated by this German doctor. [Wakolda] is very tiny for her age but starting to become a teenager, which means not only having a sexual awakening but also politically and ideologically understanding where she is, who her family are, and what they think. 

Why were you interested in the topic of Nazi fugitives in Argentina?

I was born in 1976 and grew up in a country that was slowly understanding parts of our history that some Argentines kept quiet, that the military had covered up in the seventies. So many people knew what was going on and didn't speak about the hundreds of Nazis that came to our country. So many families knew a German man on their block and said nothing.

Do you think that Argentines today have come to terms with that history?

It's something we all know about since the moment we're at school. It's not hidden in the least. Even the most passionate peronistas, the people who [prefer] the government of that time, cannot defend what happened -- how we opened the doors of our country to let so many Nazis come in. It was of course something that happened not only in Argentina, but in all of Latin America at the same time. I do think it's something that is difficult to understand. I think that's why, in Argentina, the film raised so much interest. It's a subject that is so intriguing for all of us, but also really touchy. It's never been explored cinema before in Argentina.

Do you remember anyone from your childhood who was a German man down the block?

When I began to write the novel, I met a lot with a documentarian who is very well known in Argentina and who lives in Bariloche, the town where [the film takes place]. He went to the school that appears in the film. He began to realize that all of the teachers at his school and the director of his school were Nazis who were hidden in our country. He began to shoot footage of this man with a super 16 camera and, years later, made a documentary which finally made this man be extradited to Rome. That [fugitive], who was eighty-something when he was discovered, everybody in the community said he was such a nice old man -- a perfect citizen for over four decades.

That's the banality of evil.

I think the idea of the banality of evil is dangerous -- the idea that evil could be banal. These men could hide themselves in enchanting and seductive [forms] after being so perverse and so monstrous in the war. Many of them were perfect citizens who didn't show that face for decades.

You have a female heroine in the character of Nora -- an amateur, undercover Nazi-hunter -- who was a real person. Can you talk about her?

From the moment I was writing the novel, a piece of historical information popped up: the character you mention, Nora Eldoc. I began to learn more about her because I thought she was so intriguing and so interesting, and never before had she been included in any literary works or films before. When I asked historians and documentarians about her, they all agreed that she was a volunteer [agent] and was assassinated in 1961. She actually has a sister who is still alive who also agrees that she was doing some kind of volunteer work for the Mossad. For me, she was a very powerful character  to understand how many people were looking for [the Nazis] out there -- that they were beginning to be hunted out of Argentina in those years.

I'm sure the success of the film has made it a great achievement for women directors in Argentina. How would you describe the situation for your female colleagues?

Argentina has lots of women directors -- more and more. I think it has to do with how many film schools we have in Argentina. For many years there weren't many film schools. [Gender] roles in cinema were more rigid. Directors used to be men, DoPs used to be men, and women would be in editing and cutting, costumes and art.

Something started to change in the last 10 or 15 years. There was a lot more mobility in the roles. Many women are now DoPs. It's not uncommon now. At least for me, it would be a lie to say that today, it would be tougher to make a film because you are a woman. And that's a big happiness, that that's happening.

How has the film's reception been in Argentina? 

That was a huge surprise. It had almost 500,000 [viewers]. For a film in Argentina, that's huge. We started to add screens every week: we began with 60 screens and had 70 and 80 by the second and third week. A lot of very young people went to go see it. We never expected that 18-, 20-, 25-year-olds would go and see this film.

Have you thought about why it's resonated so strongly?

I think it was a combination of things, one of course being that there's something intriguing for all of us about this story. It's something that has not been told before. Also, something clicked with young people with the subject.

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