The Search for Mengele
First Run Features // Unrated // $24.95 // September 16, 2008
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted August 30, 2008
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The Movie:
The first half or so of In Search of Mengele (actually just titled Mengele in the film itself) is one of the most profoundly disturbing documentaries I've watched. It's more than a bit unsettling to watch as the film recounts the early history of the man who, with Adolph Eichmann, would become the "face" of the expatriate post-war Nazi, coming from a well-to-do industrial family (whose plant still exists in Germany), then going on to become a doctor with a future (as they say), and then rather precipitously losing his moral compass during the rise of Hitler, ultimately becoming one of the most infamous war criminals of all time.

Mengele's Auschwitz "experiments", mostly on twins but not limited to them, are revolting and will probably leave you numb as they are recounted in horrid detail by survivors. The litany of heartbreak detailed in this documentary is overwhelming at times, probably best illustrated by the woman who gave birth in the camp, only to become part of one of Mengele's insane studies, this time to see how long the newborn could survive without food. The woman's breasts were taped so that she could not feed her infant. After a week, the child was still alive and Mengele decided to send them both to the gas chamber, which he delightedly told the woman one night. A Jewish doctor who was also interned there managed to secrete a hypodermic of morphine and strychnine which she gave to the young mother, urging her to put the infant out of its misery (the doctor's Hippocratic oath prevented her from doing it herself). The mother went ahead and gave the baby the injection, hid the corpse in a pile of dead bodies and thus was spared from the gas chamber herself. It obviously destroyed a part of the woman's soul, a sad eyed elderly lady by the time this documentary was filmed in 1985.

The second half of the documentary becomes less stomach churning but just as visceral as Mengele manages to escape the clutches of the Allies not once, not twice, but three times, ultimately escaping to Argentina, where he lived for many years before ultimately ending up in Brazil for the last part of his life. The duplicity of his German family, which funded his overseas "adventures" in order to save face (and their industrial plant) while steadfastly denying they had anything to do with him, is ably illustrated in a host of documents and supporting evidence the documentary covers in great detail. This very duplicity is itself highlighted by the fact that the Mengele family hid the true nature of Mengele's son's paternity from the son for most of his life--Rolf Mengele was always told that Josef was his Uncle. Rolf is interviewed throughout this piece, and his halting, emotionally shut down recountings of his relationship (such as it was) with his father are fascinating, at least anthropologically speaking. When he finally summons the courage to call his father out on his father's reprehensible behavior, he's subjected to a violent tongue lashing that makes him withdraw from any further confrontations.

It's alarming that everyone evidently knew (more or less, anyway) where Mengele was for a lot of his post-war life. Mengele, once he was happily ensconced in Argentina and then later Brazil, did little to hide his whereabouts and indeed even stopped using aliases after a while. The Mossad, the Israeli secret service which infamously captured Eichmann despite international extradition laws which supposedly would have prevented it, actually had Mengele in their sights at around the same time they seized Eichmann. Due to the international uproar Eichmann's capture caused, they chose not to also go after Mengele, and so he was able to live his life out in Brazil, albeit a life increasingly shadowed by a debilitating paranoia.

There's still some lingering doubt that Mengele actually succumbed to a stroke in the mid-80s in Brazil, though this documentary ends with a forensic analysis of his bones (I personally wondered why the skull's teeth did not show the trademark gap-toothed "smile" that Mengele was famous for). I had to wonder if DNA analysis had ever been done in the intervening years, but the documentary is a product of the 80s when that technology obviously wasn't available. Filmed in ten countries, In Search of Mengele does an outstanding job detailing the life story of a reprehensible character, actually helping to make him seem at least semi-human at times, with some really riveting first hand accounts not only by survivors, but those who worked with him and knew him at various times in his life. Mengele may not be an easy piece to sit through, but anyone who wants to know the depths that the Nazi regime sank to needs to watch it, however uncomfortable it may make them.


Mengele has a reasonably sharp image for its age and television origin. There's a fair amount of grain throughout the piece, but colors are decent and there's no really horrible damage to report. Some of the archival images and footage have serious damage and contrast issues, as is to be expected.

There's not much to the sound design of this piece--it's simply talking heads mixed with narrations and occasional snippets of Wagner music. Everything is clear and easily heard. The DVD case insists that the piece is narrated by David Frost, and the back cover says he co-wrote it, but to my ears, that is certainly not Frost's voice doing the narration and he is not credited anywhere in the film itself.

There's a brief, if interesting, text essay giving some more background on Mengele, as well as other First Run Nazi-centric trailers.

Final Thoughts:
As more and more time passes since the horrors of the Nazi regime, it becomes easier and easier to get more sanguine about the viciousness that was visited on various peoples simply because of their genetic backgrounds. Mengele is an apt reminder that we had better never forget, lest we devolve into such horrors again. Recommended.

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