Tag Archives: C

THE GERMAN DOCTOR

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C

An intriguing story receives rather stolid treatment in Lucia Puenzo’s slow-burning thriller, which focuses on an Argentine family’s decidedly weird meeting with notorious Nazi Josef Mengele in Patagonia shortly before his escape to Paraguay. Mengele has appeared in films before, of course, in fictionalized form as Szell, the “White Angel” of John Schlesinger’s “Marathon Man” and in propria persona in “The Boys from Brazil,” Franklin Schaffner’s potboiler based on Ira Levin’s novel, where he was supposedly trying to clone Hitler. Puenzo’s film is no less a work of imagination than those films are, but it’s much less energetic than either; indeed, it’s solemn and leadenly paced.

As the film begins, a debonair man with a moustache, calling himself Helmut Gregor (Alex Brendemuhl) approaches a blonde child named Lilith (Florencia Bado) playing along a dirt road. Striking up a conversation, he guesses that she’s eight, but she tells him she’s actually twelve and small for her age—a revelation that seems to pique his interest. Soon he’s talking with her father Enzo (Diego Peretti), who’s travelling with his wife Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and children to a hotel they’re reopening near a lake, and asking if he could follow along in his car. Before long he’s taken a room with them, and begun giving hormone treatments to Lilith to help her grow. Soon he’ll also be treating the premature twins to whom Eva gives birth. And he’ll take a hand at turning Enzo’s hobby—trying to make a perfectly-proportioned porcelain doll with blonde hair and even a beating mechanical heart—into a mass-production business.

His peculiar interests and odd medical practices clearly indicate that Herr Gregor is actually the infamous physician who gleefully experimented on captives at Auschwitz, particularly twins, with the aim of using genetics to fashion Hitler’s master race—and mysteriously escaped the Allies after the war. But he fits in famously in the region he’s settled into, where a village populated by German immigrants houses a school whose students wear uniforms resembling those of the Hitler Youth and sing “Deutschland Uber Alles” to begin the day. He’s also attached himself to a family that offers ample opportunity to quietly continue his bizarre experiments.

The rub, of course, is that the people he’s living with don’t know who he really is—or at least don’t admit to knowing. Yet Gregor/Mengele’s security comes under threat from a variety of directions. Enzo grows increasingly concerned about the icy doctor’s influence over his wife and children, especially Lilith, who narrates the film in retrospect. The work of Israel’s Mossad agents in tracking down war criminals is growing increasingly effective, as evidenced in the capture of Adolf Eichmann, glimpsed here in grainy television footage. And a recent arrival—a photographer named Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger)—becomes suspicious of Gregor and begins to investigate him.

The very premise of “The German Doctor” is bound to unsettle any viewer. Even if one doesn’t realize from the first moment that Gregor is Mengele—which seems unlikely—the idea of this darkly intense man smoothly worming his way into an uncomprehending family’s daily life and introducing a child to the concept of purity of blood is disturbing. But Puenzo doesn’t manage to bring much beyond that inherent chilliness to the story. Some of the compositions that she and cinematographer Nicolas Puenzo fashion are elegant, but they never take on much emotional depth. Nor do the performances, which for the most part are simply in synch with the director’s grimly lapidary style, though at least Brendemuhl avoids the snarling overemphasis that Gregory Peck brought to Mengele in Schaffner’s film

What’s lacking in Puenzo’s picture, quite simply, is the stylistic awareness that Alfred Hitchcock (and even John Brahm) brought to a not dissimilar story many years ago in their versions of “The Lodger.” Or the skill with which Hitch teased out the implications of a family living with a murderer in their midst in “Shadow of a Doubt.” One can imagine “The German Doctor” being genuinely creepy. But in Puenzo’s hands it’s a rather pallid, pedestrian telling of a tale that screams out for more imaginative treatment.

DEVIL’S KNOT

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C

The notorious case of the West Memphis Three, the trio of lower-class teenagers who were charged with killing three young boys in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas—supposedly as part of their Satanic rituals—has been the subject of multiple documentaries, most notably the HBO trilogy of “Paradise Lost” films made between 1996 and 2011 and the 2012 documentary “West of Memphis,” which also covered their release as the result of a curious plea deal. Now Atom Egoyan has directed this docu-drama about the case, concentrating on the initial trials that resulted in the youths’ convictions and only sketching later events in text cards at the close.

It’s not difficult to understand why Egoyan might have been attracted to this material. Thematically the story he chooses to tell, concentrating on the grief and guilt that surrounds the boys’ murders, is related to his masterly 1997 adaptation of Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter.” And he sporadically captures a similar sense of loss here, as in the haunting sequence in which the dead boys’ bodies are lifted from the creek in which they’re found and tenderly placed on the bank.

Otherwise, however, “Devil’s Knot” fails to achieve an equal measure of emotional power. The earlier film centered on Ian Holm as a lawyer attempting to enlist the parents of children who were killed in a school bus crash in a court action; this one focuses on private investigator Ronald Lax (Colin Firth), who offered his help to defense lawyers and, at least in this telling, developed most of the leads that cast serious doubt on the prosecution’s case, and on Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of Stevie Branch (Jet Jurgensmeyer), one of the victims, whose relationship with her husband Terry (Alessandro Nivola) grows strained as the ordeal continues. (Hobbs, of course, has more recently emerged as a prime suspect in the killings.) Unfortunately, neither character catches fire here, and the concentration on them shunts the three accused teens—Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jessie Misskelley (Kris Higgins) and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether)—curiously into the background. Even Lax’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan), who’s harassed by the cops, gets more attention than they do—as does another early suspect Chris Morgan (Dane DeHaan), whose over-the-top behavior when interrogated b the police was certainly grounds for a closer look.

The major thrust of the script that Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson adapted from Mara Leveritt’s book is that the police and prosecutors created a case virtually out of whole cloth, using a woman who might be prosecuted for other crimes (Mireille Enos) and her pliable young son (Jack Coughlan) to provide damning evidence and dubious experts like Echols’ parole officer (Elias Koteas) to expound sensationalist theories on the stand while the judge (Bruce Greenwood) allowed such tainted testimony into the record while systematically excluding exculpatory evidence. The trials are presented very much as a rush to judgment explained by the desire of public officials to placate public outrage, represented by the infamous rants of John Mark Byers (Kevin Durand), stepfather of another of the murdered boys, who for a time was thought to be the prime alternate suspect until the emergence of evidence against Hobbs.

There’s no longer much question that the original convictions of the West Memphis three represented a judicial travesty, capped by the logically absurd plea bargain that allowed a trio of young men the state still officially considers guilty to go free. But while Egoyan’s stately, somber (and starry) take on the early stages of the story is certainly an earnest effort to portray the miscarriage of justice that occurred in 1993-94, and as such can bring the cautionary tale to viewers who might not be familiar with the case already, the fact is that it doesn’t differ very much from a good television real-life adaptation. Part of the problem, to tell the truth, lies in the performance of Firth, whose general passivity makes Lax an oddly drab protagonist. In fact, no one in the cast—including Witherspoon—proves much more than adequate.

Technically the film is proficient but not outstanding, with Paul Sarossy’s cinematography reaching eloquence only occasionally, as in the body-recovery sequence. On the other hand, Mychael Danna contributes a moody score that adds some of the atmosphere the picture as a whole lacks.

Newcomers to the story of the West Memphis Three will find “Devil’s Knot” an honorable if muted attempt to portray a case that was a tragedy in more than one sense; those who have seen the previous documentaries won’t find much in Egoyan’s film they don’t already know but may be interested in seeing the tale told from a slightly different perspective. But coming from such a talented filmmaker, the film is disappointingly prosaic, unable to shake a Lifetime movie-of-the-week quality.