Wakolda (The German Doctor)

Directed by Lucia Puenzo
Starring Àlex Brendemühl, Diego Peretti and Guillermo Pfening
On UK DVD January 12th, 2015

by Ruth Thomson

A mysterious and mustachioed stranger with a distinct whiff of the Omar Shariff about him follows a local family along a treacherous road in rural Patagonia in 1960. As a storm breaks and forces them to take shelter together, their lives slowly start to become intertwined. Diminutive twelve-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado) is particularly drawn to the handsome foreigner – a German doctor named Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl) whose motives and true identity seem increasingly suspect as his involvement with the family deepens: sketching them repeatedly in his medical notebooks, treating Lilith’s height deficiency with growth hormones, and monitoring the health of her premature twin brothers.

Helmut is in fact Josef Mengele – the German SS officer and physician nicknamed ‘The Angel of Death’ who conducted unscientific and often deadly genetic research on human subjects in Auschwitz and was responsible for selecting victims for the gas chambers on their arrival at the camp. He fled to South America in 1949 and evaded capture for the rest of his life, living in Argentina, Paraguay and finally Brasil where he drowned in 1979 (the year prior to his death he was given the Hollywood treatment by Gregory Peck in The Boys from Brasil).

Wakolda is so subtle and understated however that whilst questions about Helmut’s true identity slowly begin to rise to the surface, there isn’t quite enough context given to infuse the situation with the necessary suspense or threat – all of the above isn’t made overt, in fact I learnt it all from Wikipeadia afterwards. Only as he towers over the newborn babies – tiny specimens indeed – with (another) storm raging outside do we really fear for the family’s lives. That said, it’s an intelligently put together film, beautifully shot with the mountainous stillness and expansiveness of Patagonia a surprising location for the residue of Nazi atrocities. The period touches – Helmut’s ice blue Cadillac and local teens jiving self-consciously to rock and roll – are evocative, and dinky newcomer Florencia Bado is compelling as wide-eyed and trusting Lilith. It’s a fascinating true story but sadly Wakolda, whilst atmospheric, doesn’t quite do it justice.

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