The sinister nature of a dramatic thriller can be portrayed in numerous different ways. Depending upon the filmmaker, one might decide to pursue a more subtle approach, rather than being bold and in our faces with the tension. This happens to be the case with Lucía Puenzo's The German Doctor. After having written and directed XXY back in 2007, she has assumed the same responsibilities for this motion picture. After debuting in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, The German Doctor was submitted as Argentina's Official Selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. While it ultimately didn't get shortlisted, this is still a huge honor that few filmmakers ever have the chance to receive.
The German Doctor follows the true story of an Argentine family, who decided to move back into the family business. They are fixing up the hotel, so that they can start having guests once again. Little does the family know, they are living with Josef Mengele (Àlex Brendemüchl). He continues to study the family's youngest child and the mother, who is pregnant with twins. This is a story of a family having lived with one of the biggest criminals of all time without knowing it.
Punezo wastes no time in planting the seed from which the tension will grow from. Josef's fascination with young Lilith (Florencia Bado) is expressed extremely early, as he tags along with the family down a long dirt road. However, the first act could have been made much stronger by occupying a more powerful dialogue between the doctor and Eva (Natalia Oreiro). They have a couple quick conversations, and she suddenly begins to trust him as if she has known him for much longer. This character transition could have been made much more smooth by simply providing us with more interaction between them. Instead, it feels as if Puenzo is rushing through the character disposition, as we never get the opportunity to learn very much about any of the characters. It's incredibly difficult to connect with those who know absolutely nothing about. This makes them feel like lifeless roles from a history book. There is a lot of rich material hiding underneath the surface, although writer/director Lucía Puenzo never seems to expose it.
This rush through the character development is only followed by a sense of uncertainty. It feels as if the filmmaker didn't know where to go from here. The pacing slows to nearly an absolute halt. While we're let in on the secret of his identity and his motives, there's an extremely limited amount of tension. Some of the research conversations that Josef has with Lilith are quite intriguing, but they're far from intense. He becomes increasingly obsessed with running tests on the young girl and her mother in order to support his research. Since she's extremely small for her age, he's trying to manipulate her genes in order to encourage growth. He promises that there aren't any side effects to the procedure, as he keeps everything hidden from the father of the family, named Enzo (Diego Peretti). Since we're so blatantly informed about each move that Josef makes, it drains every bit of tension that this picture could have possessed.
Writer/director Lucía Puenzo makes the attempt to draw from symbolism and metaphors that she creates throughout the motion picture. One of which is the flawless production of the hundreds of dolls that Josef helps Enzo get produced. We understand exactly what they're meant to represent without having them held up directly to the subject. The German Doctor offers a linear narrative with incredibly straightforward concepts. Once the film finally comes upon scenes with the potential for some dramatic tension, it simply lets it go. Puenzo moves this film along in such a monotone fashion, that she misses a lot of wonderful opportunities to captivate us. Even though you won't be held in suspense, you'll still find quite a bit of eerie material. For example, Lilith's narrative covering the topics of Josef's research journal entries can be interpreted as being quite creepy. I was hoping to see more moments such as these.
Even though the screenplay has some rather noticeable issues, the cast provides some solutions. Àlex Brendemühl is absolutely exceptional in the role of Josef Mengele. He's entirely creepy and convincing from start to finish. This is a subtle performance that truly digs under the skin and affects you while you're watching the film. Natalia Oreiro is quite captivating as Eva, as she slowly begins to realize who she has let into her family's life. Florencia Bado may be young, but she does an excellent job as Lilith. She comes across as being natural, and her conversations with the doctor feel as authentic as could be. The pacing could use some tuning up, but the cast delivers a round of believable performances.
Even with this rather intriguing material, writer/director Lucía Puenzo doesn't use it to her advantage. Rather, she decides to rush past some rather crucial moments, and slow the pacing down for unnecessary story elements. This leads to an overall uneven motion picture. Since we're spoon fed so much information, it becomes incredibly difficult for this film to generate very much tension. However, it manages to be incredibly eerie when it wants to be. This can primarily be attributed to Àlex Brendemühl's haunting performance as Josef Mengele. He owns this character and truly makes a terrifying display. The German Doctor makes for an off balance viewing experience that could have been much more effective. Rent it.