A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
A creepy doll factory, Nazis and the awkwardness of puberty, all wrapped up in one story: The prospect of such anxiety sounds like it would be almost be too much to bear. But writer-director Lucia Puenzo takes her time and lets the tension percolate slowly and steadily with "The German Doctor," which she adapted from her own novel, "Wakolda."
The physician in question is Josef Mengele, the former German SS officer and so-called "Angel of Death" of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Puenzo tells a fictionalized version of his story during the post-World War II years when he was in hiding (as so many Nazis were) in her home country of Argentina, going by the name Helmut Gregor. She doesn’t reveal his true identity until nearly the end, but we know who he is—and we watch uneasily as he insinuates himself with an unsuspecting family in the hope of carrying out his various genetic experiments.
Early on, Alex Brendemuhl gives a quietly unnerving performance as Mengele, a polite and meticulously dressed gentleman living in 1960 Patagonia. The vastness and severity of the dramatic, mountainous scenery provide great contrast with the precision of Mengele’s demeanor. When we first meet him, he has introduced himself to a family of five and asked whether he might caravan with them on a dirt-road trek to the lakefront town of Bariloche. They’re on their way to re-open a family-owned hotel—and indeed, the German-speaking matriarch, Eva (Natalia Oreiro), has some secrets of her own.
Also along for the ride are father Enzo (Diego Peretti), a doll maker, and the couple’s three children. But the one who interests Mengele the most is Lilith (confident newcomer Florencia Bado in her first film role), whose tiny frame makes her seem much younger than her 12 years. Mengele doesn’t say so at first, but in time reveals that he’d like to help her by injecting her with a growth hormone. Still, his predatory vibe is unshakable from the start.