Wakolda review: spooky, slippery and intellectually lively

Film Title: WAKOLDA

Director: Lucía Puenzo

Starring: Àlex Brendemühl, Natalia Oreiro, Diego Peretti, Florencia Bado

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 93 min

Fri, Aug 8, 2014, 15:51

   

Dr Josef Mengele has appeared on film before. In 1978’s The Boys from Brazil, Gregory Peck played him as a sombre maniac. Now, the talented Argentinean director Lucía Puenzo adopts a less frantic approach to the material.

Based on the director’s own novel, Wakolda (The German Doctor) takes rumours that concern the Auschwitz doctor’s time in Patagonia and knits them into the story of a teenage girl’s difficult coming of age. The result is spooky, slippery and intellectually lively. But there is an uncertainty to the tone throughout. Rather than complementing one another, the two narrative threads occasionally clash with some discordance. The intimacy of the heroine’s story seems slightly dwarfed by the enormity of Mengele’s crimes.

Set in 1960, the film concerns Lilith (Florencia Bado), who lives with her parents in a picturesque hotel beneath the Andes. Life is not nearly as idyllic as the scenery. Shorter than average, Lilith is bullied at school. When a German doctor moves into the hotel, she strikes up an unlikely friendship.

The doctor has a plan. Using experimental techniques, he feels he may be able to induce a growth spurt. Dad is against the idea but, following various traumas, mum eventually acquiesces.

The stranger is Josef Mengele, and Wakolda works hard at referencing the various obsessions that fired his horrific experiments in Auschwitz. Lilith’s mother is pregnant with twins, and Mengele develops a worrying interest in the upcoming birth. A subplot involving the manufacture of dolls gestures toward the Nazi’s brutally mechanical attitude to the human body.

Àlex Brendemühl brings a restrained class of menace to the stranger as the film works slowly towards quiet crisis. The Patagonian backdrops as shot by Nicolás Puenzo add their own sombre threat. But there’s just a little too much on the plate to digest in one setting. And Puenzo’s restraint, though commendable, rather mutes the dramatic impact.