The German Doctor
2014, PG-13, 93 min. Directed by Lucía Puenzo. Starring Àlex Brendemühl, Natalia Oreiro, Florencia Bado, Diego Peretti, Elena Roger, Guillermo Pfening.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 16, 2014
This Argentinian film uses that country’s dark history as a haven for escaped Nazi war criminals as fodder for its atmospheric tale. Set in 1960 and told from the perspective of 12-year-old Lilith (Bado), who is bright and curious but underdeveloped for her age, The German Doctor reminds us that appearances may be deceiving. That solicitous doctor (Brendemühl), whom you invite to be the first guest in your newly opened hotel, may not be exactly who he seems. There may be a reason he now works with cattle instead of human beings in experiments designed to perfect the animals’ genetic breeding with injections of growth hormones. But for her physical growth, the doctor considers Lilith to be a “perfect specimen,” who would greatly benefit from his treatments. Lilith’s mother Eva (Oreiro), who is pregnant with twins, welcomes the good doctor’s ministrations, although her husband Enzo (Peretti) remains suspicious.
As members of the audience, we’re already privy to the fact that this doctor is the infamous Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death behind the Third Reich’s horrific experiments in genetic engineering. We see his detailed notebooks over the film’s opening credits, and wait with baited breath for these Argentine innocents to catch up with what we, the audience, already know. But first, we must plod through overly obvious scenes which show Enzo as distrustful of this stranger but unable to put his finger on why. Enzo is a tinkerer who makes porcelain dolls, and is proud of the fact that no two are alike. He bristles when the doctor wants to invest in the dolls and have them mass-produced. We also witness the ways in which Lilith is shamed and ostracized by her classmates for her small stature, and realize the name-calling is only steps away from the state-sanctioned bullying that took place in Nazi Germany.
Writer/director Lucía Puenzo (XXY) has a nice feel for her characters and, especially, the viewpoint of adolescent Lilith. But by giving away the story’s big reveal at the very beginning, it infuses the film with a potent sense of dread rather than suspense. As Lilith, newcomer Florencia Bado makes a strong impression in her first screen role. But you just want to reach out and shake her and tell her that children are cruel, beauty comes from within, and to run as fast as her tiny legs will carry her and get away from the clutches of this beguiling monster.