Most people accept the reality of the Holocaust as a historical fact in all its quantitative enormity. Most people accept the fact that approximately six million Jews were murdered all across Europe, and that a large proportion of these individual men, women, and children met their end by gas in one of several death camps. Most people accept all of this, but even today, seventy years later, some people do not. And in the decades immediately after World War II, many people all around the world simply refused to acknowledge what had happened.
The German Doctor is set in 1961 in Bariloche, a resort town on the Argentinian side of the Andes, just across the border from Chile. In this far away paradise, people don't pretend that what happened in Europe never happened, but they do deny its significance. There is a large German population in this town and the Germans in Bariloche are proudly German. They send their children to schools where the primary language is German, and they think the Allied victory was a trick. There is also an exclusive sanatorium on a secluded lake on the outskirts of town where people who need refuge can relax in the embrace of understanding, and people who want new identities can schedule plastic surgery procedures.
Into this mix comes a mysterious man, a german doctor. But Argentinian filmmaker Lucia Puenzo (who directed and also wrote the screenplay) plants clues from the very beginning leaving no doubt that this man is actually Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele ("the Angel of Death"), the monster who performed unspeakable experiments at Auschwitz and who often made personal decisions about who would "go left" and who would "go right" when new transports arrived.
Unlike Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele was never brought to justice, and in fact, the capture of Eichmann is a major plot thread. (Remember, The German Doctor is set in 1961, which is the year Eichmann was kidnapped by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires and taken to Israel for a public trial.) When Mengele finally died in Brazil, his body was exhumed and his identity was confirmed. Watching The German Doctor, his ability to elude the Israelis finally makes sense. He was protected by an ex-pat German community that considered him a hero.
The German Doctor is told from the point of view of a 12-year old girl named "Lilith" (Florencia Bado). Lilith is the daughter of a "Eva" (Natalia Oreiro) and "Enzo" (Diego Peretti). Eva was raised in one of the finest Bariloche hotels and she went to the German school. Then she married Enzo (Diego Peretti), a Spanish-speaking man with no ties of his own to German ethnic pride. When the film begins, Eva has convinced Enzo to return to Bariloche because her mother has just died and left ownership of the hotel to her. Enzo is not keen on this plan, but he has clearly had trouble supporting his growing family. Lilith is a middle child. She has an older brother and a younger brother, and Eva is now pregnant with twins. On a lonely Patagonia road on their way to Bariloche, they meet the german doctor. Eva takes to him immediately because he is handsome and obviously well to do. Enzo is wary but powerless to protest.
The doctor is equally fascinated by this family. Twins studies were one of Mengele's greatest interests (as students of the Holocaust know only too well). But his eye is on Lilith, a tiny girl with physical deficiencies who was born between two brothers who are "perfect specimens." The doctor convinces Enzo to let him stay in the hotel even though it is not quite ready yet. Enzo is reluctant but needs the money. Meanwhile others in town, those who had hoped to host this honored new guest, are miffed.
The plot itself is part thriller and part melodrama, but what holds it all together is a pitch perfect performance by Alex Brendermuhl, This Mengele is all he must be: enormously intelligent, icy cold, preternaturally astute, someone who had the charisma and connections required to become one of the greatest villains of the 20th Century.
In the "dog days" of August, it's hard to tell you to spend a summer night watching a movie about Josef Mengele. The newest films by Woody Allen and Lasse Halstrom are both charming. I have seen them, so I know.
But if you go to see The German Doctor, I can promise you that you will leave the theater with a greater understanding of the ineffable than you had when you entered.
The German Doctor opens on Friday, August 15 at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State and Randolph. For complete details, visit: www.siskelfilmcenter.org/german_doctor
The read my complete review of The German Doctor, visit: www.SecondCityTzivi.com/2014/04/the-german-doctor