Monday, 5 May 2014

THE GERMAN DOCTOR (aka WAKOLDA) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TJFF 2014 - Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2014

Just looking at the brilliant Alex Brendemuhl as Josef Mengele
makes you feel mired in filth and in need of a good scrub.

Astonishing newcomer
Florencia Bado delivers
a knockout performance
as the very unfortunate apple
of Dr. Josef Mengele's eye.
The German Doctor Dir. Lucia Puenzo (2013) ***
Starring: Alex Brendemuhl, Florencia Bado, Natalia Oreiro,
Diego Peretti, Elena Roger
Review By Greg Klymkiw

From the very first moment we see Dr. Gregor (Alex Brendemuhl) eyeballing the fetching little girl Lilith (Florencia Bado), it's a fait accompli that this film is heading for dangerous territory. Based on director Lucia Penzo's novel, in turn a fiction rooted in fact, it's even more obvious that a living Hell awaits us when the good doctor takes a room in the family-owned Patagonia hotel of Lilith's Mom and Dad (Natalia Oreiro, Diego Peretti) and even worse, that his obsessions with: (a) assisting Dad in perfecting the design of toy dolls, (b) offering to fix Lilith's recessive genes to cure her stunted growth and (c) taking special interest in Mom's pregnancy with twins, suggest he's not all he seems to be. That Dr. Gregor is spending far too much time in this beautiful out of the way Argentinian town with other German gentlemen bandying about the word Führer and that a concerned photographer (Elena Roger) is making secret telephone calls to Israel whilst being suspiciously looked-upon by the town's upstanding Aryans, we're even more convinced that the well-dressed, soft-spoken Dr. Gregor is none other than the epitome of Nazi evil, crazed geneticist Dr. Joseph Mengele.

The German Doctor makes for compelling viewing on two counts. First of all, there is a definite grace and intelligence with which Puenzo unfolds this chilling tale and secondly, and perhaps most of all, the performances on every level are charged with the stuff of supremely bravura work. Brendemuhl as Mengele is chillingly muted, but at the same time, he occasionally lets the ooze of evil creep out so subtly that we almost feel tainted by having to lay eyes on him -- even to the point where we feel like we need to scrub away the filth he sullies us with, by his mere presence. This is certainly a brilliant and brave piece of work.

The newcomer Florencia Bado has a magnificent screen presence. The camera clearly loves her and she tackles her role as the diminutive Lilith with natural ability and surprising maturity. The scenes where Brendemuhl and Bado share screen time are especially creepy and much of this comes from the chemistry between both actors.

Director Puenzo does not ever really create the mise-en-scène of a thriller, but rather allows the material to move at the pace of a straight-up drama (albeit one infused with sheer evil and darkness). We are, for example, never in the territory of Franklin J. Schaffner's nerve-jangling, bigger-than-life film adaptation of Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil, but are sucked into a whirlpool on a much smaller scale so that Puenzo can concentrate on the subtleties of character.

Alex Brendemuhl and Florencia Bado: Creepy Chemistry

Since she does not want to be in thriller territory, part of me feels bad saying that her approach seems far too muted given the intensity of the material. Yes, this is her intent, but there is the old saying that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" and if we apply the interpretation of said meaning that the intent yields the kind of cinematic inaction that feels far too precious, then I do think it's worth mentioning that the film's whole is, indeed less than the sum of its parts.

The problem for me is that when we edge closer to the utter horror of the tale, there's an inevitability to it that detracts from the picture's overall ability to deliver a genuine knockout punch. I appreciate Puenzo's desire to handle her material with both taste and detachment, but there are times, when good, old fashioned Hollywood "vulgarity" can yield far more satisfying experiences and still manage to do so with taste, style and a good dose of slam-bang. It is, however, a worthy effort even as is.

The German Doctor makes its Toronto premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF 2014). For tickets and showtimes, contact the festival website HERE. It opens theatrically in Toronto via A-Z Films on May 9, 2014.