JDIFF Review – Wakolda: The German Doctor

After the fall of the Third Reich, Josef Mengele – a doctor who carried out horrific experiments at Auschwitz – fled to Argentina. Wakolda: The German Doctor is the fictionalised story of an Argentine family who had no idea of the true identity of their mysterious friend and benefactor, even as he became obsessed with experimenting on the youngest, and smallest of their number.

Writer/Director Lucía Puenzo has woven a fascinating study of obsession and cruelty. Àlex Brendemühl plays the German doctor of the title as a man who is not adverse to manipulating people in order to get what he wants. Brendemühl gives Mengele a predatory feeling, leaving the audience feeling as though there is a tiger in the room, waiting to strike. Diego Peretti plays Enza, the patriarch of the family whose suspicions about Mengele – even as he hides under an assumed identity – cannot be swayed by bribes or the family’s affection for the stranger in their midst. Natalia Oreiro plays Eva, the pregnant mother of the family; a woman so in love with her children that she would do anything for them even as she is taken in by a man who speaks German, reminding her of her childhood and innocence. It is this that makes Eva relatable but ultimately, frustrating.

Elena Roger plays Nora Eldoc; a photographer who is as consumed with discovering the doctor’s identity, as he is about concealing it. Roger is well matched with Brendemühl, and the final conformation between the two is as thrilling as it is terrifying. The heart of the film, however, belongs to Florencia Bado who plays Lilith, the object of Mengele’s obsession. Small for her age, but naturally curious, Lilith falls a little in love with the man who promises to make her the same as everyone else, while showering her with attention.

Puenzo’s film weaves historical fact with fiction to examine the notion of Argentina as a hiding place for former Nazis after World War II, and also addresses the rumours that Mengele continued to experiment on humans throughout his life. Having Eva pregnant with twins is a double fascination for the doctor, who was known to have used one twin as a control subject, while torturing the other. Puenzo also explores adolescent notions of love and obsession by making Lilith as curious about Mendele as he is about her. The film twists and turns, eventually becoming a suspenseful thriller as the family try to find out more about the stranger in their midst, and come to terms with the choices they have made. At times, however, the story feels a little too convenient, which leads to a slight air of unbelievability.

The cinematography of the film, by Nicolás Puenzo shows rural Argentina as both beautiful and desolate; highlighting the age of innocence in which the family lives, and the isolation that could well be their downfall.

Wakolda: The German Doctor is a thrilling film that suffers slightly through the uninspiring telling of a highly original tale. Some subplots are never fully explained, but the central story of an unrequited love affair between a young girl and a man who sees her as nothing more than a subject is suspenseful, engaging and tense, even if it all feels slightly too convenient to be true. Àlex Brendemühl and Florencia Bado shine, and the chemistry between the two means that the creepy, morbid fascination at the centre of the film works.

Rating: 3.5/5

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