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.