Josef Mengele, the psycho-butcher-pervert doctor of the Third Reich, escaped Germany and justice altogether by fleeing to South America at the end of World War II. “The German Doctor,” directed by Lucia Puenzo, who adapted her own novel, dramatizes a semi-fictional incident during Mengele’s stay in Argentina in the late 1940s, and the result is a smart and unsettling atmospheric thriller.
The culture surrounding Mengele’s Argentine sojourn will surprise many Americans. Though he had to change his name and not go around saying nice things about Hitler, he wasn’t exactly in hiding.
He lived in a part of Argentina where there were other, lesser Nazi war criminals, as well as a thriving German immigrant community. Thus, you get this odd and interesting moment at the beginning of the film, in which Mengele approaches a young family and makes a small, neighborly request.
The father says yes, but maintains a cold distance. He doesn’t know who this guy is, but the German accent is a strong hint that he can’t be anyone good.
As played by Alex Brendemuhl, Mengele is rigid and controlled – weird in a way that it’s easy to imagine him guilty of any atrocity, and yet with an air of authority, the magnetism of someone who genuinely believes himself the superior of all he sees.
He takes an interest in his neighbors’ youngest daughter, Lilith (Florencia Bado), a vivacious 12-year-old who happens to be quite short for her age. He engages her in conversation with the intent of experimenting on her. He really thinks he can make her taller.
“The German Doctor” isn’t a horror movie with a Nazi twist. No one has saved Hitler’s brain. This is about evil as it exists in the world – specifically, as it once existed at a particular time and place, and the forms it took, and the ways in which normal people reacted to it.
Part of the sophistication of Puenzo’s approach, for example, is that Mengele, at least at the beginning, is practically a positive influence on Lilith’s life. Insecure yet spontaneously flirtatious, and right on the edge of puberty, she blossoms under the attention of an adult who is willing to lavish time on her.
Puenzo paints an arresting picture of postwar Argentina as a strange, morally occluded place, with former Nazis hiding at the best watering holes and resorts and with Mossad agents working in the shadows.
Here, the native population almost seems irrelevant, floating about either in ignorance or in the hope of not being bothered. Implicit is the notion that evil thrives in an atmosphere of neglect.
Bado, as the little girl hungry for life to start, couldn’t be better, and neither could Brendemuhl, as Mengele, who conveys a whole belief system through seemingly impassive features.
Having written the original novel, Puenzo knows her characters’ thoughts at all times, and she makes sure that the audience knows them, too, subtly showing us the distance between Mengele’s pose, as a serious scientist, and his reality – as someone fit for a straitjacket, a noose or both.