The German Doctor is not light. But that’s to be expected when the central plot revolves around a supposed ex-Nazi seeking asylum in South America who hasn’t quite given up on his obsession to perfect the human race. But the dense, complex, tension-filled experience — that at times can leave you breathless — is given new life by telling the story through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl named Lilith.
Set in South America in 1960, an Argentine family moves to a small village, where they hope to begin a new life by turning a stately, remote home into a hotel. The titular doctor introduces himself as Helmut Gregor (Alex Brendemühl) and follows the family down south as a guide over dangerous terrain. When inclement weather forces them off the road for the night, he strikes up relationships with each family member — especially the family’s daughter, Lilith (Florencia Bado) — and quickly decides to stay with them instead.
Challenges abound for the family upon their arrival, but much of the focus is on Lilith, whose body is as developed as an eight-year-old’s, a fact that both intrigues as well as concerns the doctor. He uses the situation to test growth hormones on the child. Lilith and her brother struggle to assimilate into a German school, and their mother is having an unusual pregnancy, which only piques the interest of the doctor even more.
All the while, deeply unnerving issues slither throughout the background of this story. There remain many Hitler loyalists in the community, the news talks of Israel continuing to search for elusive Nazi war criminals, and the doctor’s work is all couched within telling phrases like how he desires to “improve the race.” Plus there is a spy in the village who believes that the doctor is actually Josef Mengele, a physician and SS officer who was known as the Angel of Death for his work at Auschwitz. All of which begs the questions: Who is this doctor, and what is he really after?
The film succeeds in engaging the audience on various levels, largely because it is so subtle in its execution. Brendemühl’s performance is so stoic and forthright that the creepiness he imbues in his character never needs any sort of augmentation. He simply lets his presence be felt so that the other characters can respond to him as they will.
And Lilith certainly responds to him. It is a marvel that young Bado has never acted before. She embraces her role with an unexpected level of wonder, thoughtfulness, and quiet ferocity. Bado is at turns happy-go-lucky, but there’s a sadness about being mercilessly teased at school. It doesn’t help that she’s so shy and bookish she hangs out with the school librarian. Perhaps most surprising is how she explores the unstated sexual tension between her and the doctor, since she does not know how to define it herself; it is more a sense of curiosity rather than seduction that guides her as she is hitting puberty and trying to figure out what is going on inside her physically and emotionally. Bado is absolutely riveting, and makes for a strong protagonist through which to view the scope of this story.
And with a film about World War II and the Nazis, it’s not surprising that social commentary abounds. When the doctor asks if Lilith and her brother can speak German, their mother replies, “They don’t speak, but they understand.” This response is a subtle jab at Nazism and indicates that the mother has taught them to be aware of the German language without encouraging them to freely engage in it. And in one subplot, the doctor’s manipulative abilities are displayed when he encourages Lilith’s father, Enzo, to stop making unique porcelain dolls in favor of mass-producing a golden-haired, blue-eyed doll that looks eerily like Lilith. All of this is done under the guise of it being a better way for the family to make money, which makes Enzo’s decision all the more tragic, as he does not realize that doing so appears to make him a Nazi sympathizer.
Director Lucía Puenzo manages to merge a character-driven drama with a spy thriller, and in the process, she creates a film with palpable tension. Puenzo effectively handles the ever-nebulous creative endeavor that involves fictionally exploring real-life characters and events — a sort of choose-your-own-adventure based on actual historical events. And whether deftly examining the differences between the hope of youth and the darker realities of adulthood, or ironically juxtaposing tranquil, majestic, beautiful shots with the cold ruthlessness that embodied the Nazi regime, the director’s eye for the little things is magnificent.
The German Doctor is striking in how simultaneously simple and profound it is, and it leaves quite the impression on you. Between Puenzo’s astute directorial decisions, Brendemühl’s steely presence on screen, and Bado’s captivating performance, this film is one of 2014’s best.