At the end of BioWare’s excellent RPG Mass Effect 2, in which you defeat a Godzilla-sized zombie Terminator robot, the player must decide between: (a) destroying the awesome but made-by-villains technology, or (b) harnessing its insane power to perhaps save the universe from utter annihilation. What’s interesting about that choice is the idea that technology — or some field of knowledge — can be tainted by the evil deeds of those that invented it, or those who employed it. The German Doctor, a film by Argentinian filmmaker Lucía Puenzo, explores an aspect of that idea through a slow-burning story involving a particularly heinous Nazi war criminal and his time spent evading capture in South America.
This Nazi is Josef Mengele, and he’s scary because he’s smart. He was not a henchman as much as a mad scientist, with a particular interest in genetics and babies. Such a person, with just a bit of charisma, might have disguised himself in the ’60s as a roaming salesman in the Andies, where a family might have found him in need of help and took him in. And that’s exactly what happens here. Mengele (played with cool, nefarious confidence by Àlex Brendemühl) attaches himself to a family as they open a hotel in Patagonia, and he becomes interested in their preteen daughter, a girl who’s gorgeous (and also Aryan-looking) but short for her age due to being born premature. He gives her growth hormones, and he also gives medicine to her mother, who’s pregnant with twins. Despite his helping them out, the family — and especially the father (played by the sharp-eyed Diego Peretti) — never truly embraces him. His being German and his association with a nearby school with Nazi ties create an atmosphere of uneasiness that hovers over the film, like a fog.
While the family could have deduced that this quiet medical man had a dark past, they never realize he’s a Nazi of Nazis. Still, trust is at the heart of their problem. Do they take his seemingly reasonable medical advice, which they desperately need? Or do they shun him because of who he’s associated with? It’s a precarious situation, and Puenzo structures the film so as to make you mull it over before pulling a tragic rabbit out of the hat. While the pacing is slow, and the drama between the Nazi and the family never really comes to a boil, Puenzo deserves credit for getting us snuggly into the diving bell and dropping us into the film’s psychologically-complicated depths. Visually, she’s able to capture Mengele’s perverted obsession with Ayran beauty through his manufacturing of creepy blonde dolls. Unfortunately — and this is pet peeve of mine — she has CGI snow throughout the film’s finale. That sounds nit-picky, but as a Minnesotan, I just can’t let that go.
The German Doctor is playing at the Edina Cinema.