The German Doctor is about a middle-aged human genetics researcher, Helmut Gregor (played by the excellent Alex Brendemühl), who moves to a remote part of South America in 1960. Not to stereotype German geneticists in the immediate post-War period, but I think these particular characteristics would set off alarm bells in the minds of most half-witted adults. Alas, not our central couple – Enzo (Diego Peretti) and Eva (Natalia Oeriero) – who fail to realize that the Hitler doppelgänger living among them is a Nazi war criminal with his heart set on genetically enhancing their daughter (Florencia Bado).
Such is the story of Lucia Puenzo’s (XXY) latest film, which screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2013, and which last week received an Australian DVD release. Puenzo also wrote the novel, Wakolda, on which the movie is based, and, believe it or not, the story is partially true: Josef Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death”, travelled through South America in the 60s while dodging Mossad. If the secret-Nazi story sounds familiar, you may have caught Bryan Singer’s mediocre Apt Pupil in 1999. Unlike Singer’s campy genre flick however, this film leans more towards unsettling thriller, and rather than constantly chucking Nazi iconography in your face, Puenzo downplays the menace’s identity, which makes his everyday interactions all the more creepy.
Sadly, that’s about as close to subtlety as this film gets, as otherwise it’s quite an awkwardly heavy-handed affair. The most frustrating instance of this is the unremitting parallels the film draws between Gregor’s eugenics and the family’s (creepy) porcelain doll making company. It’s a far too convenient sub-story – that plays into a nice little lesson about how important it is to be unique! – and it’s just slathered on far too mercilessly.
Which isn’t to say that Puenzo’s film doesn’t work as a whole, in fact it has quite a lot going for it. For one, Puenzo shoots the film in widescreen, which helps us appreciate the gorgeous Argentinian backdrops. The performances too are all solid, particularly first-timer Bado, who plays Lillith – the daughter – with remarkable poise. The direction is also good. Arguably one of Puenzo’s better decisions is positioning the viewer with Gregor for most of the film. We follow Gregor as if he were a do-gooder protagonist just trying to fit in a new town, which makes for some serious internal conflict when we learn just how sociopathic he is.
Unfortunately, what this film lacks are good enough ideas to befit the story. There’s very little moral ambiguity on show, as Nazis and eugenics don’t tend to be particularly divisive. It’s also just not really a mystery to the audience who this doctor is, but Puenzo seems to revel in the secret. So what’s left is a good-looking, unsettling story that has very little thematic substance and instead feels largely quite contrived. Luckily, The German Doctor is redeemed just enough by its strengths – the acting, the aesthetics and the truly quite terrifying story – to get a recommendation from me.