★★★★ | Wakolda
In the opening scenes of this historical drama we see a distinguished looking German gentleman accosting a travelling family of five to ask if he may follow behind them as he is unsure about driving alone on the desolate dirt roads in the middle of the vast plains of Patagonia.
The year is 1960 and they are heading south to the small lakefront town of Bariloche to re-open a Hotel that once was a thriving concern when another generation of the family ran it. The German never reveals much about his own destination or any of his plans for staying in this country far from home.
When they finally arrive, the German, who the family are learning is either a Doctor or Scientist, insists on renting a room from them and to overcome their reluctance sweetens his request by overpaying as he has sensed that the family is cash poor. Eva the heavily pregnant mother is German speaking, as are so many of the local residents – as the best school in the area was the German one, and she welcomes him into their home. Her husband Enzo is a struggling doll-maker and although a man of few words and simple tastes, he is the only one in the family who is not impressed with the charm onslaught from this very creepy stranger in their midst.
The ‘Doctor’ is particularly taken by Lilith the 12 year old of the family who has always been much smaller than the norm for her age ever since she was born 2 months premature. Soon he is trying to persuade the parents that with the hormone treatment that he has been working on, he can improve Lilith’s growth rate dramatically. They are all initially reluctant to even consider this course of action but Eva relents after Lilith suffers another brutal day of taunting at her school because of her size. However she insists that they keep the news of this change of heart from Enzo until at least Lilith starts gaining some height.
Now the ‘Doctor’ has gained Eva’s confidence he turns his attention to her, especially when he discovers that she is going to give birth to twins as we eventually find out that he has some plans of his own for these yet unborn babies.
This movie from Argentinian filmmaker Lucía Puenzo, adapted from her own novel, never hides the fact that the Doctor is none other than Josef Mengele the notorious Nazi who did barbarous and inhuman genetic experiments on the inmates of Auschwitz earning himself the moniker ‘The Angel of Death.’ This highly believable fiction is based on the fact that after the War he, like so other high-ranking Nazis, fled to South America where he continued his cruel work on pregnant women and children until his death in Brazil in 1979.
Puenzo slowly unravels her story and builds the tension by insinuating what the Doctor really is up too as he slowly manipulates his way into this family’s lives. It is only the German School Archivist that suspects and confirms his true identity and she is anxious that he is caught and out in trial for his war crimes just like Eichmann who Israelis had recently captured. Unfortunately, as he is protected by a wide network of loyal Party supporters he will always manage to completely avoid this.
This chilling tale succeeds mainly due to the combination of a convincingly sinister performance by Spanish actor Àlex Brendemühl as the menacing Mengele, and also the bleak remote landscape dramatically captured by cinematographer Nicolás Puenzo, who is also the Director’s brother. This was Argentine’s official submission for Best Foreign Picture Oscar, and although it didn’t end up with a nomination, it was definitely worth a consideration.