Won over by his charisma, elegance, vast scientific knowledge and money, a young Argentinean girl and her family unwittingly befriend one of the world’s most terrifying war criminals – the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
This terrifying prospect – based on true events – sets the premise for a new and gripping thriller, The German Doctor (Wakolda), which is released in UK cinemas tomorrow. Set in an isolated region of Patagonia, the film revolves around Mengele (played by Alex Brendemuhl) and his increasing fascination with 13-year-old Lillith (Florencia Bado).
Here, acclaimed writer-director Lucia Puenzo, who previously directed XXY and The Fish Child discusses the film, based on her eponymous novel which explores why her native Argentina became a haven for as many as 5,000 Nazi war criminals, including Mengele and Adolf Eichmann, in the years following the Second World War:
Jewish News: Why did you choose to adapt your novel Wakolda for this film and what changes did you make for the script?
Lucia Puenzo: I was interested in the voice of a little girl who became fascinated with a German doctor, and who slowly discovered his true identity. In the novel, even if it’s not the voice of Mengele, his character sees the world as if it was a very big zoo, like a laboratory.
In the film, the point of view becomes that of the girl. It is through her eyes that we see everything: the relationship with this German doctor and the German community settled in Bariloche, which was closed and very pro-Nazi at that time, even before the war. I wanted to look at how she begins to understand where she is and who these people are.
JN: Did you research the Nazi history of South America?
LP: Yes. The stories of Nazis in South America could fill a hundred books and films. There were so many Nazis of all different hierarchies who disappeared into our country, and in several other countries of Latin America.
But I was especially interested in their obsession with genetics, with making the perfect race. It is almost a paradox that Mengele, so obsessed with racial purity, should end up in a continent (not only in Argentina – he spent a year in Paraguay and Brazil), where we all have mixed blood.
JN: Do you think that, like Lilith’s mother, part of the Argentinian population might have ignored the Nazis’ crimes?
LP: In 1959, everybody was beginning to know what had happened during the Second World War, but probably not everyone knew about the role of German doctors and what had been going on in the deportation camps. That was discovered later.
The German community of Bariloche was well prepared to receive the Germans who came from abroad and needed new passports, new identities, new jobs. There were networks to do that and to make these men evaporate. There were also many Argentinians, who more or less knew who these men were.
JN: Is Wakolda essentially a mixture of part-fact and part-fiction?
LP: Yes, both the novel and the film work with a combination of real facts of history and some fiction. It is true that Mengele lived in Argentina for four or five years. He even had his name in the phone book, he had a pharmaceutical company, he moved around our country with complete impunity.
At some point, when Eichmann was captured by Mossad, Mengele disappeared and reappeared in Paraguay six months later. The film is set during those six months, where his tracks were lost for some time. Some people say he was in Bariloche at some point.
The family with whom he lives is fictional, although they could have been real. Nora Eldoc, the Israeli spy, is a true-life character based on a woman who was found murdered a few days after Mengele is supposed to have left Bariloche.
Some say she worked for Mossad, while others say she was there for a skiing holiday and that her death was an accident. But people from the Israeli embassy came to look for her body, took some documentation away and recorded the story.
JN: How does Wakolda explore the theme of medical ethics?
LP: I have an interest in what some aspects of medicine are doing even today to create perfect bodies. Of course, Nazism took this idea to its perfect and fanatic extreme: they crossed the line horribly and in a very perverse way.
When I began to write Wakolda, I met a lot of historians, but I also interviewed doctors, geneticists and endocrinologists. They kept telling me that the growth hormone used in the treatments Mengele experimented with – even though he was completely out of control and he did so in a very perverse way – is the same hormone used today for growth treatments. It just goes to show that ethical issues are still a delicate subject in today’s world.
• Wakolda is released in UK cinemas on Friday 8 August.