First Run Features has released director Lucia Puenzo's acclaimed 2013 film "The German Doctor" on DVD. The movie is the highest profile Argentinian release in years and was honored at numerous international film festivals. Puenzo, who also wrote the screenplay, based on the film on her novel, which- in turn- is said to have been inspired by the real-life experiences of a family who interacted with the infamous Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele. During WWII, Mengele was known as "The Angel of Death" at Auschwitz. Here, he utilized his considerable medical skills for evil purposes, selecting who would live and die among the wretched masses who arrived daily at the death camp. Those who were spared were consigned to a living hell of torture and slave labor. The few children who were not put immediately to death were used as human guinea pigs in Mengele's bizarre and cruel medical experiments. He was obsessed with genetics in his goal of helping Hitler fulfill his ambition of creating a "Master Race". Mengele played a key role in attempting to manipulate pregnancies to ensure that only Aryan children would be born in nations under Nazi control. His bizarre theories have long been discredited by the mainstream medical establishment, particularly his obsession with twins. Mengele studied pairs of twin children through inhumane methods, often operating on them without any pain-killers. The few prisoners who interacted with him and managed to survive the war report that, for all his barbaric practices, Mengele had a calm, almost soothing demeanor that would often lull his victims into thinking he was a benign presence in the camp. He would pat children on the head and offer them candy, only to dispose of them like rubbish hours later. In the aftermath of the war and the chaos that ensued in Europe, Mengele managed to escape (along with many other Nazis) to South America. In his case, he found refuge in Argentina, where the corrupt government sheltered him, presumably in return for his "expertise" about how to fine-tune torture tactics.
It is against this backdrop- what we inherently know about Mengele- that Puenzo's story begins. It is 1960 and we see Mengele (Alex Brendemuhl), using the assumed name of Helmut Gregor, lost on a remote country road. He has a chance encounter with a young couple, Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and Enzo (Diego Peretti), who are traveling with their three children. Mengele befriends the family, who consent to having him follow them in his car along the desolate roadways. Along the way, Mengele charms each member of the family and he explains that he is a doctor en route to an institute where he will be working. Coincidentally, the institute is very close to the family's destination, which is a resort hotel that they have inherited. The couple intends to reopen the hotel and hope to make a financial success of it. Enzo, it appears, has not been successful in financially providing for his family. He fancies himself an inventor and his real passion is creating a unique doll that can marketed to little girls. He finds a sympathetic ear from Mengele, who reinforces his bond with the family by becoming their first tenant at the hotel. Eva is immediately smitten by the charming German doctor but he seems more interested in the couple's oldest daughter, Lilith (Florencia Bado). Although twelve years-old, she is very short and slight of build, giving the impression she is much younger. This results in terrible bullying at the local school, where there are children of German ex-pats who are particularly cliquish and cruel to Lilith. Both Eva and Lilith are charmed by Mengele, who professes to help them by offering to inject Lilith with hormone injections that will spur her growth. Enzo is adamantly against the idea, but Eva secretly gives the doctor permission to proceed. Before long, Lilith is experiencing strange medical complications. Simultaneously, Mengele discovers that Eva is pregnant with twins. This smorgasbord of potential medical experiments excites him and before long, he has convinced Eva to also undergo some of his quack medical treatments. He has also ingratiated himself with Enzo by finding a financial backer who will mass produce Enzo's dolls. (A sequence set in a doll factory is brilliantly staged and genuinely eerie, with row after row of hollow-eyed dolls evoking memories of a death camp.) However, when Enzo sees his wife and daughter suffering from mysterious illnesses, he begins to suspect that his new friend is really a villain. He is not alone. A local photographer (Elena Roger) is, in fact, an Israeli intelligence agent who also begins to believe that the seemingly benign and charming man of medicine may actually be one of the most wanted men in the world.
"The German Doctor" plays out at a slow, deliberate pace that is refreshing in a film industry defined by fast-editing and mindless action sequences. The script allows each character to be fully developed and the relationships between the key players becomes fascinating, as Mengele uses psychological methods to manipulate his next victims. The performances are uniformly extraordinary, with Brandemuhl particularly impressive. Although portraying one of the most notorious criminals in history, he deftly manages to make him charming and likable, both necessary ingredients if we are to understand why the family he has befriended can be so easily manipulated by him. The film is engrossing throughout and, even though we know through history how Mengele finally met his fate, it doesn't deprive director Puenzo from milking a considerable amount of suspense from the scenario.
The First Run Pictures DVD offers an excellent transfer but is frustratingly devoid of any bonus materials. It would be a worthwhile ambition for the label to eventually put out a special edition of this excellent film with a commentary track that helps viewers understand the historical context of what they are seeing.