The German Doctor is set in South America — Argentina — in 1960. And you’d have to have slept through years of history classes and skipped past every rerun of The Boys from Brazil to not guess who that doctor might be.
But writer-director Lucia Puenzo, adapting her own historical novel, concocts a disquieting and chilling thriller out of what might be a lost chapter in the infamous career of Nazi Doctor Joseph Mengele. Yes, the stranger’s moustache is faintly sinister. His attentions, especially for the Argentine family’s daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado, precocious and terrific), suggest a perverse degree of scrutiny.
He doesn’t say why he’s on this lonely road in the middle of Patagonia. But this fellow who calls himself “Helmut” (Alex Brendemühl, guarded, excellent) drives a Chevy and keeps a doctor’s bag handy at all times. And all he wants to do is follow them so he can avoid the dangers of being stranded. Sure, says dad Enzo (Diego Peretti). But as the family arrives in the alpine setting where an inn their relatives used to run is located, Helmut reveals a detail, here and there. He studies animal genetics. He’s insistently curious about mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and her pregnancy. Is she having twins?
“There’s nothing more mysterious than blood,” he purrs as he fills his journals with drawings, diagrams and charts. He’s sure a little hormone treatment would help the undersized Lilith grow, and spare her the teasing she endures in school.
Because that’s just what happens in Aryan High, down South America way.
Lilith narrates the story, describes herself as a “perfect specimen” in the German doctor’s eyes, and watches as he ingratiates himself into her family’s lives — underwriting Enzo’s doll-making hobby so that he can mass produce little Heidi look-alikes (nice metaphor) — slipping treatments for Lilith in between his many meetings with “the neighbors” and all the other blue-eyed folks who make this corner of Argentina a touch Bavarian.
Puenzo’s cinematographer, her brother Nicolas Puenzo, captures scenery that seems straight out of a Leni Reifenstahl movie, snow-capped mountains that attracted Germans there long before the Austrian corporal’s Reich sent others seeking a refuge that looked like home.
A passing acquaintance with history doesn’t spoil the film’s suspense, not when the first swastika pops up at an unexpected time from an unexpected source. And melodramatic touches like organized bullying and secretive school kids and a too-nosy school photographer (Elena Roger) don’t weigh down the film any more than Enzo’s anachronistic ’70s haircut or Helmut’s ’65 Impala in a movie set in 1960.
The German Doctor is still a cracking good thriller. Because, as that title implies, whatever gifts Germany has given modern culture — and the film’s scene of young teachers twisting to a German version of “The Purple People Eater” certainly counts — in the movies, there’s still no villain like a Nazi one.
Cast: Àlex Brendemühl, Diego Peretti, Natalia Oreiro, Florencia Bado, Elena Roger.
Writer-director: Lucia Puenzo.
A Samuel Goldwyn release. Running time: 93 minutes. In Spanish, German and Hebrew with English subtitles. Brief nudity, adult themes. Opens Friday May 16 in Miami-Dade: Tower, Aventura, South Beach; in Broward: Gateway, Lake Worth; in Palm Beach: Living Room, Shadowood, Marketplace.