Wakolda (aka The German Doctor)

Argentina (2013) Dir. Lucía Puenzo

It is generally accepted that the Nazis weren’t particularly nice people so the popular consensus is you wouldn’t let one in the house – unless of course you weren’t aware that you were in the presence of a high-ranking officer of the SS with a rather notorious reputation.

Based on true events Argentinean novelist turned director Lucía Puenzo adapts her own book Wakolda for the big screen which tells such a frightening story. Set in 1960 an Argentinean family – pregnant mother Eva (Natalia Oriero), doll maker Enzo (Diego Peretti) and their three children – move to a small Patagonian town with the intent of reopening their family hotel.

Prior to the journey they meet a German doctor, Helmut (Àlex Brendemühl) who is heading in the same direction. A well-mannered and thoughtful man, Helmut ingratiates himself with the family, taking a keen interest in the youngest daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado), a 12 year-old whose body hasn’t grown according to her age. Helmut offers to help with Lilith’s growth via pioneering hormone treatment as well as treating Eva during her pregnancy and investing in Enzo’s doll making business.

So what could be the problem with having such a generous, well-qualified and altruistic man around? Just the small matter of Helmut really being exiled Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele aka The Angel Of Death, infamous for his torturous “human” experiments on the prisoners of Auschwitz, that’s all –  the equivalent of employing Jimmy Savile as a babysitter.

Puenzo’s tale may be largely fictitious but she does a tremendous job in playing with our nerves even if the viewer wasn’t already aware of Helmut’s true identity. The fact it has its origins in real life events simply bolsters the already present chill factor, thrumming ominously in the background every time Helmut is onscreen, his steely eyes hinting at a silent predator waiting to pounce.

It might be a matter of contrivance that the Patagonian town the story is set in should be home to a community of German ex-pats; Eva herself was educated in Germany and is fluent in the language. She sends her children to a German speaking school where Lilith is teased because of her size and called a dwarf, prompting her to accept Helmut’s offer of treatment which Enzo forbids but Eva supports.

At first Helmut’s fascination with Lilith and, by extrapolation, the dolls Enzo makes appears to tease the audience into thinking his designs are much more lascivious then they are, Aside from a medical interest in her pregnancy, Helmut makes no attempt to curry favour with Eva or with her other daughter; Helmut shows little interest in the son and his dealings with Enzo are purely financial.

This is the first layer of dread Puenzo applies to unsettle the audience and Lilith’s easy trusting persona, despite her precocious intelligence, makes her a naïve fly to fear for as she inches closer to Helmut’s web. But the doctor is clever and hides behind his medical qualifications and wealth to assuage any concerns while his notebooks full of detailed anatomical drawings and musings serve as another facet of this masquerade.

But it is not just the family who need to be on their toes – Helmut reads in a newspaper that he is being sought by Israeli agents which he merely smiles, unaware that the librarian and archivist at Lilith’s school, Nora (Elena Roger), also isn’t quite who she seems and is about to uncover the truth about the good doctor and the other former Nazis enjoying a new life in South America.

Puenzo was inspired to write this story as she was appalled yet bemused by how such a wanted man in Mengele and other Nazi’s were able to hide away for so long incognito across Latin America. She was also fascinated by the idea of their manipulating the human body which plays into the Lilith subplot, which is neatly paralleled by her impending puberty and attraction to a classmate Otto (Juan I. Martínez) who isn’t bothered by her tiny stature.

Despite the bustle of the school playground, the hive of energy from the doll production factory and the polite communal atmosphere at the hotel, this is a rather quiet film in terms of denoting impending horrors, avoiding musical cues and recurring motifs to set a foreboding tone. In the absence of any visual flourishes, the washed out colour palette is an intrinsic tool in creating an unsettling mood.

Elsewhere Puenzo instead prefers the subtle approach, relying on the minutiae found in Helmut’s fastidiously authored documents or his charmingly evasive answers to any probing questions to stoke our fears. Àlex Brendemühl plays Helmut with restraint and ambiguity, not so much aloof and soulless yet cagey and unnervingly precise. He rarely shows emotion but isn’t distant, only revealing his true colours at the very end of the film.

Newcomer Florencia Bado delivers a flawless performance as Lilith for her debut, confident, mature, and full of awareness of every aspect of the character, she is as much the lynchpin of the story as the truth behind Helmut’s identity. Natalia Oriero and Diego Peretti create a unique dichotomy as the divided parents, the former providing an emotional anchor as Eva, both before and after childbirth.

The scientific elements of the story has been well researched and the attention to detail of the period setting, along with the fastidious and intricate artwork in Helmut’s notebooks are so convincing that we are ready to believe that everything is true. Puenzo isn’t a flashy director but she does know how to use mood, imagery and shot composition to compliment and augment the tight performances of her cast.

Wakolda (the name of Lilith’s favourite doll) is a taut and disarmingly easy going film that doesn’t so much get under your skin as it does crawl all over your body before burrowing its way into your head and toying with every last nerve. A plausibly chilling affair indeed.

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