Josef Mengele. Der Todesengel. The angel of death. Just thinking of the name makes my skin crawl. I don’t know if it’s just the name, or remembering the atrocities carried out by Mengele with a fanatical glee in Auschwitz. So when I read the synopsis of the film about a German doctor in remote Patagonia, it took me a while to decide whether to watch it, after my mind immediately associated the story to that of Josef Mengele in his exile. Wakolda (The German Doctor in English) is a fascinating atmospheric thriller where the thin line between truth and fiction was aptly obscured by a brilliant storytelling, remarkable acting and breathtaking cinematography featuring an Andean backdrop. But beyond the taut storyline, the ominous presence of Mengele at the back of the viewers’ mind is what gave the film an eerie outlook. If you don’t know about Mengele, the film will fail to create the effect the director intended to. So, prior to watching the film, I’d recommend a little history lesson in WWII and the role of Josef Mengele in the extermination of the Jewish population. And it’s important, not just to understand the context, but to understand the horror of the WWII that torn millions of lives apart.
The story begins in around 1960 as an Argentinian family heads to a mountain retreat named Bariloche in Patagonia, when a strange person requests to follow their car. He seemed quite interested in their boisterous girl with a stunted growth. Reaching Bariloche, where the family is trying to open their inherited hotel business, the doctor — identified himself as Helmut Gregor, offers to stay for six months in their hotel, despite having a place to stay in the town. The doctor offered to treat the girl, Lilith, against the will of her father, as she kept getting bullied in her new German school. Lilith’s mother was found pregnant as well, and knowing that she’s having twins, the doctor looks quite interested and offers to help her with the medication. As Lilith suddenly becomes fond of the strange doctor and follows him everywhere, she learns little things about him that made her more curious. Things such as Sonnenmenschen (Sons of the sun/Aryans), Blut und Boden (Blood and soil) engraved in a knife. Lilith’s curiosity gets someone else interested as well. Nora Eldoc, the photographer at the German school Lilith went to, was suspicious of the new doctor who arrived in the German community, and he seemed to have a few fond supporters including Nora’s boyfriend. She takes Helmut’s photos and sends them as evidence that Mengele was in Bariloche. But the Israeli authorities were more interested in Eichmann. As Lilith started showing some signs of growth, Helmut increased the dose that caused Lilith to have a high fever. Meanwhile, he convinces Lilith’ father Enzo to mechanise production of dolls that Enzo makes. By this time Eichmann was caught and taken to trial in Israel and Mengele knew people have started to suspect. The day they visit the factory to see how the dolls are coming along, Enzo finds out from the delirious Lilith about the treatment and confronts the doctor. Enzo asks him to leave their hotel immediately but realises on his return that his wife Eva gave birth to twins prematurely and they are not breathing. Despite Enzo’s protest, Eva convinces her support to the Doctor. Helmut agrees and tells Enzo to get help from a secret address. He finds out a heavily guarded place, with a fully functional hospital, strange looking people with bandaged faces. A nurse comes with them and makes the twins stable, although it was clear that one is recovering better than the other. The next morning Eva finds out that one of the twins passed away. Helmut packs his bag and measures Lilith for the last time, showing a big growth in her height before he starts making his escape. As the Israeli officials close in on the hotel, Mengele escapes in a seaplane, heading towards Chile.
Wakolda is a strange film. You don’t see anything amiss, and that is what is more unsettling. It feels as if you’re watching a Cold War spy film, but there’s something more sinister in the plot there. It also gave a déjà vu feeling after I tried to find more about it. The film is written, produced and directed by Lucía Puenzo, the same author-director who made XXY. XXY is one of the most remarkable films I’ve watched and in my state of awe of having watched Wakolda, I thought that explains the fabulous story and filmmaking. Lucía Puenzo is one of the rare breed of filmmakers, who make films from their own stories. The entire minutiae that she must have thought of while writing the story are seamlessly translated into the scenes when she was making the film, without details getting lost in transition.
Apart from Lucía Puenzo’s phenomenal storytelling, Wakolda is a success with its casting as well. Like her previous film XXY, Lucía’s story revolves around a young character and Florencia Bado was flawless in portraying Lilith. Lilith’s character is the narrator and most part of the film is seen through Lilith’s eyes. As one of the main characters of the film, Florencia’s characterisation of Lilith, with her innocence, hesitations, her shame about her body, and yet showing her defiance, her adolescence – it was magnificent. Natalia Oreiro and Diego Peretti played crucial roles as Lilith’s parents. Natalia’s character Eva played a subdued role in the film and although she won a number of awards for the role, the character was not emphatic or significant enough in the film for such acclaim. In fact, Elena Roger, who played Nora Eldoc in the film was much more vivid than Natalie. But it was Àlex Brendemühl who stole the show. Àlex portrayed the central character of the film with a finesse. I didn’t manage to find out how Mengele’s character changed when he escaped to South America, but Mengele in this film didn’t show the devilish ecstasy that he was known to exhibit during his experiments. Except for his obsession in creating the perfect race — whether it’s the cattle, the dolls or Lilith and the twins of Eva. But perhaps, his subjects in this film were of the race he wanted to modify, and therefore was sympathetic towards them. Again, being an atmospheric thriller, Wakolda didn’t leave much scope for Àlex to express the panache of his acting ability, like we witness from Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang. Àlex’s ominous presence was expressed by his silence, curt dialogues with Lilith, his feverish scripts and notes, and above the conviction in everything he does — whether it is reserving the room in the hotel, or convincing Eva that Lilith will start growing, or getting Lilith’s father to start manufacturing factory made dolls. He possessed an imposing aura on anybody and everybody he interacted with. It seemed that Àlex was a natural choice for this role.
Los poetas escriben lo que ven, los pintores lo pintan. Yo mido y peso lo que me interesa (Poets write what they see; painters paint it. I measure and weigh the things that interest me) — Helmut Gregor on his obsessive detailing of human form.
And finally the cinematography by Nicolás Puenzo, without which, Wakolda would have been another long-winding character drama. The dramatic backdrop gave the film its momentum and created the perfect atmosphere for the suspense to evolve. Whether it was the awe-inspiring Andes mountains, the meandering roads, the tranquil lake of Nahuel Huapi and the pier, the treacherous pass to reach the toy factory — the imageries fitted into the gloomy backdrop of the film. Some of the long shots lasted for a little too long but that worked well with the slow-paced start of the story. The film also captured the seasonal changes of the region — from incessant downpours to thick snows to sparkling spring. Bariloche, which is a famous Argentinian holiday destination, is showcased with all its beauties to an audience spread across the world.
But beyond these elements that made Wakolda a grand success, it was the storyline itself that gave the film its addictive charm. In Lucía Puenzo’s own words, she tried to blur the lines between black and white, how the world wants us to see things. The viewers are left in a state of confusion whether to believe if Mengele was in fact in Bariloche during that period. Lucía chose a period when Mengele’s whereabouts were not known for six months, between the time Eichmann was caught and Mengele escaped to Chile. He was known to be seen in Bariloche. Apart from Mengele’s sightings in Bariloche, the location was perhaps chosen based on the fact that Bariloche became a safe haven for the Nazi war criminals. Lucía mixed facts with fiction so subtly that it created a thriller straight out of Forsyth books. Facts like Nora Eldoc being present in Bariloche. She was later found murdered in the mountains, and she was in Argentina to find Mengele, but the rest of the story is fiction. It looked like the murder of Nora Eldoc is covered in mystery, as was the silence of Israel government. Was she sent to hunt Mengele down by the government? It seems that we still don’t know that. Throughout the film, similar questions arise that keep us wondering how much of the story was actually true and how much falls in the realms of the imagination of the author? In his parting gesture to Lilith, Mengele takes his SS engraved knife out and flicks it over the scale where he was measuring her growth. It showed a big change in her height. Again, Lucía mentioned that even until the time of making the film, the hormone treatment for stunted growth is done pretty much as developed by Mengele. Now, not knowing Mengele and his atrocities, his departure in the film leaves the audience wondering whether he was a misunderstood person with excellent medical knowledge? Perhaps it does. But that is the success of the film. It’s like making a horror film without showing scary ghosts. The spectre of Mengele looms over the film in every scene. If it wasn’t Mengele, the film would not have been classed a thriller. It would have been a stale drama.
Serendipity is a word I learned a long time ago, and I found that best discoveries in our life are serendipities, we find them when we aren’t really looking for them. It’s most apt regarding the films I’ve watched in my life, and Wakolda was one of them. I just come across brilliant films by accident. But I only write a review when the film goes beyond the message it’s set to deliver and makes me wonder further. Especially when the thoughts are primarily regarding Nazism and it’s just last month when Germany has seen right-wing MPs to be present in the Bundestag for the first time since the WWII. Questions like how on earth the despicable criminals like Mengele have avoided the war crimes trial? It appeared that Mengele had even gone back to Germany carrying his own passport and travelled across Europe before going back to Argentina. Did the officials not know who he was or was the information kept hidden? Even 15-20 years after the end of the war, was there still an underlying pro-Nazi sympathy existing in the government ranks? Had the ghost of Nazism ever disappeared completely from Germany? Perhaps it did, and the new far-right politics is a completely new movement, but while the leaders of these new movements debunk the horrors of Nazism, it begs the question whether it was just hidden under the rug. Wakolda also showed in a brief shot a heavily guarded hospital and many people with their faced covered in bandages. It obviously hinted to the fact that many of the defected German war criminals underwent plastic surgery and avoided arrest for their life. We also see the lack of remorse in a lot of Germans featured in Bariloche, about the war, about the Holocaust, about Hitler. They lived their life as it was before, in a close-knit community, still thinking about the world order they could not build, still dreaming about the Sonnenmenschen. Amongst all such developments, one thing was strikingly evident; it was the naiveté of the Argentinian people about who they were. It seemed that the Nazis and their sympathisers had no worries from the authorities. And the Argentinians they lived around were happy to be integrated into the German lifestyle – proudly attending parties and singing Deutschland uber Alles, which was officially banned in Germany since the war. Although news didn’t spread so rapidly as it does now, it was surprising why the Argentinian government and people did not know about the horrors of Nazism and turned a blind eye. One thing that these Nazi war criminals had in abundance is wealth, amassed from the families they destroyed. It can be easily guessed where that wealth was channelled to, so they have a trouble-free life. Perhaps it was the fall of Peron regime and Eichmann’s arrest and trial that brought an end to the carte blanche the Nazis enjoyed so far.
Such questions arose and it’s never easy to find an answer. People perhaps spent their lifetime finding an answer to these mysteries. However, Wakolda also raised another question and I have an unequivocal answer to that. At the end of the film, Mengele leaves the audience wondering if he was right and his treatment was working. There might even be a small room for sympathy towards the German doctor who avoided arrest at the last minute by catching the plane. But the Josef Mengele depicted in Wakolda is not the person who he really was. He was a heinous criminal, with no respect for human life, and single-handedly murdered thousands of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz. He is beneath any sympathy, or commendations for the discoveries he made, because of the cost of such findings. And that’s where the similarity between the film and real Mengele ends. Mengele, after all, was not worth turning into a misunderstood protagonist. Wakolda is, in fact, a historical fiction, not a real story.