sat 20/07/2024

Wakolda | reviews, news & interviews



Confident Argentinian drama mixes thriller elements with darker themes

Doctor and specimen: excellent interplay between actors Alex Brendemuhl and Florencia Bado

Against the background of the spectacular scenery of Patagonia, Argentinian director Lucia Puenzo creates a tight, subtly unnerving thriller in her third film Wakolda. Its American release title “The German Doctor” reveals its subject more immediately, which is the time spent by Nazi physician Josef Mengele (Alex Brendemuhl) in Latin America after his flight from Europe.

But Wakolda is a very long way indeed from the other film that springs to mind on that subject, The Boys from Brazil. Instead it tells a chamber story of how Brendemuhl’s character, travelling under the name Helmut Gregor, insinuates himself into an Argentinian family, when the stunted physique of the daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado) draws his professional interest. Equally unnerving is the portrayal of the German-speaking community in remote Patagonia, Nazi-sympathizing well before World War Two and never purged of it, now honoured to shelter one of that regime’s most notorious figures. (Mengele went to Argentina in 1949, and spent the rest of his life in various South American countries until he died in Brazil in 1979: he was never apprehended.)

Puenzo handles the thriller elements subtly, slowly nurturing a sense of closing-in

Set in 1960, the film opens with Mengele hurrying away from Buenos Aires: news of the appearance of Nazi-hunters (who would soon track down and capture another Nazi refugee, Eichmann) is in the air. He’s heading south for the remote town of Bariloche, where he’s expected. On the long and perilous road, he falls into the company of an Argentinian family on their way to reopen a family hotel that’s set in spectacular mountain landscapes on the banks of a lake. The place becomes the main location for Puenzo’s drama, its natural beauty (so very like Switzerland, as is remarked more than once), established in stark contrast to Mengele’s dark intentions. Even in this natural paradise there’s a snake of suspicion though, with seaplanes frequently landing on the lake to drop off mysterious passengers at a nearby clinic.

Puenzo is a director of considerable assurance, who treats her story – the source is the novel written by the director herself – with persuasive detail. Lilith’s premature birth has left her short for her age, and the doctor persuades her parents that he can treat her – the mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro) is easily convinced, while father Enzo (Diego Peretti) remains suspicious. Enzo’s sideline is making and repairing dolls, and a subplot brings him into business with Mengele’s assistance, thus earning his consent.

Mengele’s interest, as before in the concentration camps, is physical form, investigating the possibilities for improving or perfecting the race, achieving the concept of sonnenmenschen, or supermen, as it’s referenced in the film. The first time he sees Lilith he notes her as a “perfect specimen”, later meticulously recording his medical studies in annotated notebooks. The dolls become a metaphor too, with the contrast of Lilith’s rough, hand-made one (that doll’s name gives the film its title) and the anonymous porcelain perfection of the factory-produced examples (Alex Brendemuhl with dolls, pictured below left).  

It’s the relationship between the young girl, just on the edge of puberty, and the older man whose apparently benign intentions captivate her, that’s the most nuanced and unsettling. There’s a curious collusion, an uneasy engagement, between the cold calculation of Mengele and the initial wide-eyed guilelessness of Lilith (a remarkable performance from Bado, pictured above right).

Puenzo balances, with great poise, that central psychological attachment against the surrounding world depicted, particularly the details of the local German-speaking community, one that's somehow detached both in language (the film switches freely between Spanish and German) and in time, clearly still caught up with the discredited ideology of two decades earlier. She handles the thriller elements subtly, slowly nurturing a sense of closing-in, of growing urgency towards a dramatic conclusion. Set against this interior drama are the film's unforgettable landscapes, the towering mountains and rough deserts of the huge country which are spectacularly captured in Nicolas Puenzo's widescreen cinematography. It’s a compelling combination, pulled off by Lucia Puenzo with great accomplishment.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Wakolda


There’s a curious collusion, an uneasy engagement, between the cold calculation of Mengele and the initial wide-eyed guilelessness of Lilith


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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