★★ / ★★★★
On their way to Patagonia to reopen a hotel, a family is approached by a physician named Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl) to ask if he could follow their car through the desert because he is not at all familiar with the area. The patriarch, Enzo (Diego Peretti), agrees to lend a hand to the stranger, but little does he and his family know that the man right behind them is a war criminal from Nazi Germany whose real name is Josef Mengele.
Written and directed by Lucía Puenzo, “The German Doctor” is heavy on atmosphere, sleuthing, and looks pregnant with implications, but it fails to evolve into an effective dramatic thriller because the requisite powerful forward momentum does not get introduced until the final fifteen minutes. As a whole, it is about sixty-percent exposition, thirty-percent rising action, and five-percent climax. It is a struggle to sit through at times.
It is most compelling when we are provided pieces of the puzzle in terms of the monster that is Mengele. The contents of his little book, which contains scientific notes and detailed illustrations, is of particular interest because looking carefully at the material written and drawn there is a glimpse inside a brilliant mind without a care for what may be considered unethical. He gets his hands on whatever might be of interest and the rest is collateral damage. The way he observes the twelve-year-old girl named Lilith (Florencia Bado), the only daughter of Enzo, is creepy and curious. What does the doctor have in store for her?
Less interesting are the scenes depicting the bullying that happens at Lilith’s new school. Because she has the bones of an eight-year-old, born two weeks premature, she is often picked on by her classmates for being a “dwarf.” Although we might feel sorry for her (I didn’t), there is very little about the character that is interesting or worth knowing. Her motivation is one-dimensional: To get taller means no more bullying. This is problematic because, for the most part, the story is told through her eyes. Preadolescents are much more interesting in actuality than what the story provides.
There is a photographer named Nora (Elena Roger) who suspects Helmut being Mengele. I wished that the writing had focused a little bit more on her undercover work. The men and women around the exiled former German SS appear to be willing to do whatever it takes to protect his identity and so the few scenes where Nora is trying to connect the dots hold a solid level of suspense.
“Wakolda” is a picture that is half-asleep. While I appreciated that the writer-director downplays elements that could have predictably been hyperbolic, a much-needed breath of fire from its belly is needed about halfway through to reward us for hanging in there. Instead, it saves all of the catharsis for its finale when the audience has long gone weary.