Notions of childhood innocence and guilt through complicity are played against one another in Argentine director Lucía Puenzo’s deliberate but unexceptional pot-boiler Wakolda (2013). Premièring in the Un Certain Regard programme at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Puenzo’s latest went on to be nominated as Argentina’s official entry at this year’s Academy Awards amidst much acclaim. Entitled The German Doctor in some territories, Wakolda follows a young family relocating to Patagonia in the sixties only to find themselves with an mysterious guest – the aforementioned physician. Not one to shy away from difficult issues, Puenzo seeks to explore the banality – and impunity – of a devastating evil.
The doctor, it transpire, is none other than Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele hiding out in South America under an assumed name. It’s his steely gaze (with which lead actor Àlex Brendemühl evokes the intensity of Michael Fassbender) that opens the film; fixed upon young girls at play. This, of course, is not unsettling for the typical reason, but rather for his apparent professional interest in one particular girl, Lilith (first-timer Florencia Bado). She is very small for her age and, after ingratiating himself to her parents (Natalia Oreiro and Diego Peretti), and taking a room in the hotel that they manage, begins to suggest potential treatments to help her bones grow. Brendemühl is brilliantly chilling as the sadistic Mengele, seamlessly shifting from affable doctor to obsessive Nazi eugenicist.
Mengele’s easy charm helps him inveigle his way into the family’s confidence while the German ex-pat community in the nearby town support his further genetic experimentation. Despite the revelations after the end of the Second World War, the locals continues to harbour certain sympathies and a secluded lakeside house receives secret visitors via hydroplane. Wakolda could have played as a thriller or even a psychological horror, but Puenzo is interested not just in the tension of Mengele and those apparently destined to become his victims, but with a wider culpability for the Nazis that remained at large in South America for decades. Subtlety is the director’s favoured tool in most instances, the plight of the family wonderfully accentuated by the beautiful cinematography.
In other moments, however, things work less well. As with her inaugural offering, 2007’s XXY, Puenzo once again employs some heavy-handed symbolism that the film could have managed without. That said, the understatement can also have a negative affect and does to some extent by stripping away any emotional attachment to the family. There’s some interesting substance beneath the narrative but when things in Wakolda do get fraught, you can’t help but feel that they’re never quite as tense, nor as engrossing, as they perhaps could have been.