‘The German Doctor’

‘The German Doctor’

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Florencia Bado as Lilith and Diego Peretti as Enzo in “The German Doctor.” Samuel Goldwyn Films

There are few names that elicit more contempt and horror than Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death who served as one of the physicians at Auschwitz.

Though he was one of 30 doctors at the concentration camp, he is the one most often associated with the selection process that took place when trainloads of people arrived at the camp. Who would be physically able to work and who would be sent to the gas chamber? It was the medical staff that decided who would live and who would die.

At Auschwitz, Mengele, who had conducted legitimate research on twins before the war as a way of studying variant factors of human heredity, now was given full license to do whatever he wished with his subjects. Many of his test subjects were maimed, died as a result of the experimentation, or simply were murdered. At war’s end, though he wound up in U.S. custody, this war criminal somehow was released; by 1949, along with a multitude of other Nazis, he made his way to Argentina. There, and in neighboring countries, they found government protection and community indifference. There, they were able to live out their lives. It is at this point that the story of “The German Doctor” begins.

Over the years, several American filmmakers chose to build thrillers around the Nazi haven in South America. There were films like “The Odessa File” and “Marathon Man”; after all, Nazis made the perfect bad guys and fit so nicely into the good guy-bad guy Hollywood plotline. Now, an Argentinean filmmaker takes on the subject from a totally different perspective. How was it possible to live in a community knowing that your neighbor was a fugitive and murderer? How was it that war criminals like Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann were able to find protection and even adoration?

The film, set in 1960 Patagonia, begins with what appears like a chance meeting between a German doctor and an Argentinean family. There, in the massive expanse of southern Argentina, the family of five and the doctor are drawn together. They travel to Bariloche, a town where they plan to start a new life.

The parents, Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and Enzo (Diego Peretti), have taken over a family resort. Their first guest will be this German doctor (Alex Brendemuhl). Eva, whose parents were German speakers, and her daughter, Lilith, are drawn to this supposed veterinarian, who has such fine manners, but Enzo does not trust the man. The story looks on questions of trust and mistrust and how this German doctor is able to gain the acceptance of all.

In a very real way, filmmaker Lucia Puenzo uses the story to provide a picture of the interconnectedness of Nazis and Argentineans during this period. “I could never understand the complicity – how so many families could know what was going on and never say anything,” the filmmaker told me. “It seems very difficult not to put things together when you had this German living nearby.” Drawing a great deal from Carlos Echeverria’s powerful 2007 documentary, “Pact of Silence: The Second Life of Erich Priebke,” she weaves her story of how Lilith is intrigued by this man, who gives her a great deal of attention at a time when she is reaching womanhood, and how Eva turns to the doctor for assistance when she learns that she is pregnant with twins. Mr. Echeverria told the story of a Nazi war criminal who was a highly esteemed member of the community and whose past seemed to have little relevance. When he was finally extradited to Italy for crimes against humanity, most of the townspeople protested because he “was such a nice little man, the perfect citizen,” Ms. Puenzo said. The film brings us into Lilith’s school, where pro-Nazi sympathy is strong, and to a local bar where German exiles are held in special esteem.

How could such an evil man be so loved and admired? Although filmmaker Echeverria’s Nazi, Priebke, would be brought to justice, in real life Mengele made himself a new and comfortable home. He never was found.

It seems that the only party interested in seeking to bring this criminal to justice is Israel. Ms. Puenzo places a school librarian, Nora Eldoc, who speaks some Hebrew and somehow has ties with the Mossad, into the equation. Ms. Eldoc was a real person, who met a mysterious death, and her life has been tied to the attempted capture of Mengele. Her inclusion in the story adds a nice element of suspense as we try and understand why this elusive evil man was never caught.

Lucia Puenzo is the talented 37-year-old daughter of Luis Puenzo, whose 1985 film, “The Official Story,” raised serious questions about Argentina’s Dirty Wars. It went on to win the Oscar for best foreign language film. Lucia is both a novelist and film director. “The German Doctor,” her third feature film narrative, is the adaptation of her fifth novel, “Wakolda.” It was Argentina’s Oscar submission for best foreign language film this year. When I met her, I understood how this Argentinean bore part of the burden of her country’s complicity in harboring Nazi war criminals. Through her film, I could make sense of her desire somehow to right the wrongs of a previous generation, which turned its back on an evil past.

“The German Doctor” is a reckoning of sorts. It is a powerful drama with fine acting, cinematography, and direction. The film opens today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.

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