Credibly on the trail of Mengele in Argentina
JOSEF MENGELE is alive and well and living in Patagonia in Lucía Puenzo’s film. Adapted from her novel, Wakolda — Argentina’s selection for the foreign language category at this year’s Academy Awards — is a believable imagining of a period in 1960 when the Auschwitz “Angel of Death” went to South America, but left little evidence of his activities. This allows Puenzo to come up with her own frightening theories, while validating hatred of the sadistic monster.
Alex Brendemühl portrays the evil doctor incredibly well, combining menace with probity, which makes him credible in the eyes of the family who allow him to live in their hotel, test his growth-hormone experiments on their under-sized 12-year-old daugh- ter, Lilith (accomplished newcomer Florencia Bado) and monitor her mother, who is pregnant with twins.
The doll-maker father (Diego Peretti) has his doubts about the resident geneticist, who has adopted the pseudonym Helmut Gregor, but he is too busy creating a doll with a mechanical beating heart. When Mengele helps him to finance his project, they visit the factory together and it is there among the rows of identical blue-eyed blonde dolls that the doctor’s own sick ambitions come into sharp relief. Symbolism at its most obvious perhaps, but still unsettling.
Equally so is the Argentinian welcome mat for fleeing Nazis and the colluding by the local German ex-pats who run their own school and a hospital filled with bandaged patients undergoing suspicious cosmetic surgery.
With Mossad in determined pursuit of war criminals, the other reallife character in the film is Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger), an undercover operative who hunted Nazis. Here posing as a photographer, she alerts her bosses to Mengele’s true identity. The solid performances and measured direction by Puenzo are all reasons to recommend the film, which regretfully has the worst score (we’re talking fingers in the ears) I’ve ever heard. As a thriller, it lacks the suspense of Marathon Man, or even The Boys from Brazil. But when you consider the possibility of this being a true story, it is terrifying.