An­gels and de­mons

Lucía Puenzo has pulled off quite a feat of sto­ry­telling with her lat­est film, a com­ing-of-age drama cen­tred on the South Amer­i­can ad­ven­tures of the no­to­ri­ous Dr Josef Men­gele. The direc­tor talks to Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM - TARA BRADY

The shel­ter­ing of Nazi war crim­i­nals in South and Cen­tral Amer­ica is some­thing most of us know a lit­tle bit about. In the decades fol­low­ing the sec­ond World War, var­i­ous com­man­dants, mar­tial hood­lums and Holo­caust strate­gists were tracked down in the most set­tled of cir­cum­stances.

Cin­ema has not had much to say about the gaps be­tween flight and ar­rest (or death). Lucía Puenzo’s fas­ci­nat­ing, orig­i­nal Wakolda ( The Ger­man Doc­tor) seeks – among other things – to rec­tify that sit­u­a­tion. Adapt­ing her own novel, the Ar­gen­tinean film-maker has built a com­ing-of-age drama around the later ad­ven­tures of Dr Josef Men­gele. Floren­cia Bado plays a young girl who en­coun­ters the doc­tor, no­to­ri­ous for his ex­per­i­ments on pa­tients in Auschwitz, while liv­ing with her par­ents at a ho­tel in Patagonia. This is 1960, a full 19 years be­fore Men­gele ap­par­ently drowned in a swim­ming ac­ci­dent while at large in Brazil.

“We know quite a bit about his move­ments,” Puenzo says. “He was in Buenos Aires for four years. He ac­tu­ally ap­peared in the phone book as ‘Jose Men­gele’. He had ab­so­lute im­mu­nity be­fore the tri­als be­gan. Un­til then peo­ple didn’t know much about the doc­tors. He lived a nor­mal life. The in­for­ma­tion popped out. He van­ished for a while, but we know that he did turn up in Patagonia for a while.”

Puenzo, the daugh­ter of the great film direc­tor Luis Puenzo, goes on to ex­plain the com­plex his­tory of Ar­gen­tinean at­ti­tudes to the ghastly men the na­tion once shel­tered. There was, she ar­gues, im­me­di­ate re­vul­sion among the pub­lic when the in­for­ma­tion be­came gen­er­ally known. But the is­sue is dragged up in po­lit­i­cal de­bate to this day. Juan Perón, in power from 1946 to 1955, re­mains a hard fig­ure to pi­geon­hole. In­deed, he still gar­ners some sup­port from the left.

“It was not mil­i­tary rule,” she says. “In other parts of South Amer­ica there was mil­i­tary rule. But Perón did many other good things. But not even­the most­pas­sion­ate Perónista is able to de­fend what he did as re­gards war crim­i­nals. This is still a dis­cus­sion be­cause the right-wing will point out that, though Perón may have done good things, he al­lowed this to hap­pen. Of course, much of it was about money. There was all this Nazi gold com­ing in.”

An end­lessly chatty, in­tensely ar­tic­u­late woman with a great deal of ag­i­tated hair, Puenzo was born and raised in Buenos Aires. Her im­pec­ca­ble English can be at­trib­uted to that fact that she at­tended a “Scot­tish school” in the Ar­gen­tinean cap­i­tal. We for­get that the mod­ern na­tion is very much the cre­ation of im­mi­grants: Ital­ian, Span­ish, Ir­ish, Scot­tish. She fur­ther honed her English when vis­it­ing Dublin dur­ing the mid-1990s.

“Yes I spent six months there when I was 19,” she says. “I was back­pack­ing across Europe and I liked it so much I stayed. I worked in a bar and lived in a hos­tel. That was such a great time.”

Luis, her fa­ther, is best known for the 1985 film The Of­fi­cial Story. Ad­dress­ing the “dis­ap­pear­ances” of the late early 1980s, the film won the Os­car for best for­eign lan­guage film and brought Luis to Hol­ly­wood for a spell. In 1989, he di­rected Gre­gory Peck and Jane Fonda in Old Gringo. Puenzo re­mem­bers her fa­ther gen­tly prod­ding her to­wards her cur­rent ca­reer.

“I was eight years old when he won his Os­car,” she re­mem­bers. “That was ex­cit­ing. His films were part of our lives. The Of­fi­cial Story was shot in our house. The girl’s room in the film was my room and I re­mem­ber tak­ing a sleep­ing bag to the kitchen. What I re­mem­ber most was the fun that he brought to film sets. And I’ve tried to carry that on.”

Lucía went on to study lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Buenos Aires be­fore mak­ing her way to the Na­tional Film In­sti­tute. Even now, she al­ter­nates film scripts with nov­els and short-story col­lec­tions. Her de­but fea­ture XXY, the story of a teenage in­ter­sex person, won the grand prize at Cannes Crit­ics’ Week and took the Goya Award for Best Span­ish Lan­guage For­eign Film in 2007.

Wakolda is the sort of project that could edge her into the main­stream (if that is where she wants to go). The child’s story is easy to iden­tify with. Her in­ter­ac­tions with Men­gele – who seeks to trig­ger a growth spurt through du­bi­ous “ex­per­i­men­tal” pro­ce­dures – are creepy and in­trigu­ing. And, of course, we re­main fas­ci­nated with the Nazis. Puenzo is care­ful not to present Men­gele – played with re­straint by Àlex Bren­demühl – as any sort of cack­ling mon­ster. Sin­is­ter waves hang around him, but he re­mains a fleshy hu­man be­ing.

“It was im­por­tant not to fall into the stereo­type of the mon­ster,” she says. “These char­ac­ters were much more com­plex. We have so many tes­ti­monies of how they could dis­guise their per­son­al­i­ties and be­come per­fect cit­i­zens. So many peo­ple came out to say when they were dis­cov­ered: ‘ Oh but he seemed like such a nice old man.’ For me that was the most scary part; they could be de­mons and then be per­fect cit­i­zens for the rest of their lives.”

Puenzo is ea­ger to clar­ify that the young girl’s story re­mains at the heart of the film. We are lured in by the prom­ise of a leg­en­dar­ily ghastly vil­lain and then charmed by this more del­i­cate story of grow­ing up as an awk­ward child.

“Yes, that’s right. It’s more about her than it’s about Men­gele,” she says. “It’s about the spirit of life that you have when you’re be­com­ing an adult. It’s about learn­ing who your par­ents re­ally are.”

Lucía Puenzo is steeped in film. Her three broth­ers are all in­volved in the busi­ness. Her hus­band is a writer and a film direc­tor. Her fa­ther, of course, is a se­nior fig­ure in the busi­ness. Yet she is ea­ger to main­tain an iden­tity as a nov­el­ist. When her next col­lec­tion of short sto­ries is fin­ished, she will, how­ever, throw her­self into film projects set in Brazil, Mex­ico and Paris. “I keep busy. I keep busy,” she says.

And with a flour­ish she is gone. This whirl­wind will come our way again soon.

Di­rected by Lucía Puenzo. Star­ring Àlex Bren­demühl, Natalia Oreiro, Diego Peretti, Floren­cia Bado Club, QFT, Belfast; IFI, Dublin, 93 min Dr Josef Men­gele has ap­peared on film be­fore. In 1978’s The Boys from Brazil, Gre­gory Peck played him as a som­bre ma­niac. Now, the tal­ented Ar­gen­tinean direc­tor Lucía Puenzo adopts a less fran­tic ap­proach to the ma­te­rial.

Based on the direc­tor’s own novel, Wakolda (The Ger­man Doc­tor) takes ru­mours that con­cern the Auschwitz doc­tor’s time in Patagonia and knits them into the story of a teenage girl’s dif­fi­cult com­ing of age. The re­sult is spooky, slip­pery and in­tel­lec­tu­ally lively. But there is an un­cer­tainty to the tone through­out. Rather than com­ple­ment­ing one another, the two nar­ra­tive threads oc­ca­sion­ally clash with some dis­cor­dance. The in­ti­macy of the hero­ine’s story seems slightly dwarfed by the enor­mity of Men­gele’s crimes.

Set in 1960, the film con­cerns Lilith (Floren­cia Bado), who lives with her par­ents in a pic­turesque ho­tel be­neath the An­des. Life is not nearly as idyl­lic as the scenery. Shorter than av­er­age, Lilith is bul­lied at school. When a Ger­man doc­tor moves into the ho­tel, she strikes up an un­likely friend­ship.

The doc­tor has a plan. Us­ing ex­per­i­men­tal tech­niques, he feels he may be able to in­duce a growth spurt. Dad is against the idea but, fol­low­ing var­i­ous trau­mas, mum even­tu­ally ac­qui­esces.

The stranger is Josef Men­gele, and Wakolda works hard at ref­er­enc­ing the var­i­ous ob­ses­sions that fired his hor­rific ex­per­i­ments in Auschwitz. Lilith’s mother is preg­nant with twins, and Men­gele de­vel­ops a wor­ry­ing in­ter­est in the up­com­ing birth. A sub­plot in­volv­ing the man­u­fac­ture of dolls ges­tures to­ward the Nazi’s bru­tally me­chan­i­cal at­ti­tude to the hu­man body.

Àlex Bren­demühl brings a re­strained class of men­ace to the stranger as the film works slowly to­wards quiet cri­sis. The Patag­o­nian back­drops as shot by Ni­colás Puenzo add their own som­bre threat. But there’s just a lit­tle too much on the plate to di­gest in one set­ting. And Puenzo’s re­straint, though com­mend­able, rather mutes the dra­matic im­pact.

Diego Peretti (left) and Àlex Bren­demühl in Wakolda. Below: Direc­tor Lucía Puenzo

Stranger dan­ger: Floren­cia Bado gets a wor­ry­ing present in Wakolda

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