Acclaimed Argentine writer-director Lucia Puenzo adapted her own book to make this taut thriller about the hidden identity of the ‘German Doctor’. When a scientist insinuates himself into the lives of a young girl and her Argentine family, they unwittingly begin a relationship with exiled Nazi ‘Angel of Death’ Joseph Mengele.
Manish Agarwal discusses why Puenzo’s latest feature – Wakolda – is one to catch at BEVFF14…
Lucía Puenzo lit up the international film festival circuit with her 2007 debut XXY, which won the Critics’ Grand Prize at Cannes (plus several other awards globally) for its portrayal of an intersex teenager’s search for gender identity. Based on her own novel, the Argentine writer-director’s second feature, The Fish Child (2009), mapped the star-crossed romance between two young women from the opposite ends of Buenos Aires’ social spectrum. Puenzo has adapted another self-penned book for its gripping follow-up Wakolda, which rewinds to 1960 to conjure a rarely seen perspective on one of the most troubling chapters in her nation’s history.
Shot with an unerring eye for the vertiginous beauty of the Patagonian landscape, this multilayered drama is being released in some territories as The German Doctor, highlighting its primary antagonist: a rich, outwardly charming middle-aged man (played with mercurial authority by Àlex Brendemühl) who goes by the name Helmut Gregor. The mysterious arrival asks a welcoming family of five if he can follow them on the treacherous desert road to Bariloche, a picturesque settlement by the Andes which was colonized decades previously by immigrants from Germany. Pregnant mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro) was brought up there and is returning with husband Enzo (Diego Peretti) and their burgeoning brood to reopen a lakeside lodge she’s inherited.
Bilingual and expecting twins, Eva converses with the transplant in German, common heritage and his medical expertise winning her over. Enzo only speaks Spanish and is more circumspect, but grudgingly accepts when the titular physician stumps up a wad of cash to become their first guest. A mutual fascination develops between Helmut and the couple’s wide-eyed 12-year-old Lilith (a wonderfully naturalistic Florencia Bado). Small for her age, Lilith is cruelly taunted at her new (German-speaking) school, just at that stage when kids are suddenly, acutely conscious of their bodies, sexuality and social standing. Helmut claims to be versed in genetics and offers to administer hormones to aid the child’s growth. He keeps working himself deeper into the family’s life. Tensions arise. Bonds are tested. Terrible secrets are spilled or withheld.
Meanwhile, the TV news reports Mossad’s sensational capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires. Credible sources suggest that Josef Mengele – the ‘Angel of Death’ at Auschwitz, whose atrocities included conducting genetic experiments on concentration camp prisoners, twins in particular – has also fled to South America. We’re quickly made aware that the Bariloche school librarian Nora Eldoc (a magnetic performance by Elena Roger, better known as a musical theatre star) is actually from Israel. Nora’s on a mission to uncover concealed Germanic identities in Argentina. She’s a true silver screen heroine – the stealthy Nazi hunter – whose clandestine activities a more conventional picture would accentuate. However, one of Wakolda’s many qualities is that it doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence by foregrounding this seductive narrative. As befits her covert status, the Israeli agent’s heroics play out quietly. There’s no big reveal, just an inexorable sense of dread. Shamefully, her quarry is hiding in plain sight.
As the movie’s creator explains: “I spent almost a year writing the script of Wakolda, based on my eponymous novel, submerged in the complex reasons which made the Argentinean government open its doors to so many Nazis, even making a law to allow them the use of their real names, while entire towns – like Bariloche – were openly friendly to welcoming them… Why hundreds of Argentinean families became accomplices to these men? What was the reaction of these closed German communities, settled down in Patagonia long before WWII, when Nazism turned into something hideous? More so, what happened to the teenagers raised in these communities when they became aware of the monsters they were living with?”
Puenzo explores these questions by relating events in hindsight through the eyes of ingenuous Lilith, her sparingly used narration lending additional heft to this unusually extreme tale of innocence lost (further amplified by Warren Ellis’s emotive, electric violin-swept score). Refreshingly, we’re presented with three well-delineated female protagonists, Eva’s parental imperatives and pragmatism bringing her into conflict with outraged spouse Enzo. They share an especially taut exchange about the morality of accepting the so-called medic’s ‘help’ that’s all too horribly believable.
Rather than styling the film as a full tilt thriller, Puenzo has used her imaginative source material to craft an evocative coming-of-age saga entwined with postwar historical fact. Nonetheless, her directorial flair ensures that the story’s inherent dynamism emerges to shocking effect in the final act, irrespective of your prior knowledge about its Nazi principal’s eventual fate. In real life, his ‘desk murderer’ cohort Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem, leading to Hannah Arendt’s famous observation about “the banality of evil”. There was nothing banal about Mengele, but Wakolda successfully conveys his evil with implacable shades rather than broad brushstrokes: compare Brendemühl’s steely work with Gregory Peck’s italicized take on the same character in the 1978 blockbuster adaptation of Ira Levin’s speculative fiction The Boys From Brazil.
Incidentally, the movie’s moniker refers to the broken porcelain doll Lilith cherishes at its outset. Wakolda is a handmade toy, assembled with love by her father. As part of his inveiglement, the German doctor convinces the reluctant Enzo that mass production is preferable to making each doll unique and imperfect. So begins a factory-bound subplot which, on paper, is cine-symbolism at its most heavy-handed. Yet it’s a tribute to Lucía Puenzo’s remarkable skill as a filmmaker that this pointed sequence, with its bone-chilling array of blank-faced white heads, resonates as deftly in the moment as her wider themes will linger in your memory.