Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
See how they conceive evil, and are pregnant with mischief, and bring forth lies.
Argentinean director Lucia Puenzo based this chilling film about Dr. Josef Mengele on her own novel Wakolda. Told by twelve year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado), the story begins on a beach where the doctor watches children at play. He particularly notices Lilith, noting in his sketchbook that her dimensions make her “the perfect specimen,” even though she is small for her age. When he gives her the doll that she has dropped, he asks her its name, and she replies, “Wakolda.” The symbolic meaning of the name we will discover later on in the film.
Lilith’s family, consisting of her father and mother Enzo (Diego Peretti), Eva (Natalia Oreiro), and a teenaged sister and brother, are heading back to the lakefront town of Bariloche, located deep in the vast expanse of Patagonia. The journey is a long one over a lonely dirt road, so the doctor, also heading there, asks if he might caravan with them.
The next day the family stops at the lane leading to their hotel that they plan to re-open. “Helmut,” as the doctor calls himself, drives on into town where he is welcomed by a very blond young man who obviously holds him in great esteem. Space at a veterinarian lab has been set aside for the good doctor’s genetic experiments with animals. There is a large colony of Aryan Germans who obviously know of the doctor—and we too are let in on the fact that Helmut is actually Josef Mengele, a German SS officer and doctor known as the “Angel of Death” at the Auschwitz concentration camp where he conducted grisly experiments on live prisoners. He and the other Nazis have all escaped to South America where they live in comfort—though not, as they listen to some news reports about Israel’s Massad’s capture of Adolph Eichmann, with total ease. With its beautiful lake overshadowed by snow-covered mountains, the region must have reminded the immigrants of Bavaria. A seaplane frequently comes and goes, depositing mysterious passengers who join the German colony.
Soon the doctor has talked his way into becoming the first occupant of the hotel located just outside of town, even though the remodeling is not finished. Enzo tries to dissuade him, but the wad of bills Helmut lays before him overcomes the owner’s reluctance. Soon the doctor is taking an interest in Lilith, suggesting to the parents that as a geneticist he can help her with her small stature. The suspicious Enzo says “No,” but when the children at the private Aryan school make life miserable for Lilith, calling her “Dwarf,” and physically assaulting her, Eva secretly gives him permission. Thus begins the series of examinations and hormone injections, marks of her height on the wall, and sketches of her entered into the large log that the Doctor keeps on his desk. The doctor also becomes very interested in Eva when he learns that she is expecting twins.
To win over Enzo, Helmut talks with him about his hobby of making porcelain dolls with moving parts. Enzo is a talented gadget maker, coming up with a tiny mechanical heart that he inserts into each carefully crafted doll. Helmut suggests that he could arrange for them to be manufactured at a factory in town. Prizing the uniqueness of each doll, Enzo questions why he would want to mass-produce them. However, realizing the possibility of making a profit from his hobby, he assents to the doctor’s going ahead to explore the possibility. In what turns out to be the most chilling scene of numerous ones, we see him conduct Enzo through the factory where the parts for 200 dolls are all lined up as women assemble and paint them. Helmut calls the look alikes “perfect dolls,” reminding us of his observation that Lilith is the “prefect specimen” and that the goal of Nazi geneticists was to create the perfect race. Hence, too, the symbolic importance of the name of the film.
Adding to the drama and suspense (the latter dealing with how and when Enzo will discover that his daughter is being experimented upon) is the school’s new photographer Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger). Although the Doctor’s devoted assistant takes a romantic interest in her, the Doctor himself remains suspicious of her. Well he might, as she is Jewish and becomes convinced that he is the hated Angel of Death from Auschwitz. What will he do when he finds out that she is on to his true identity?
Although filmmaker might have revealed too much by letting us in on the Doctor’s identity from the beginning, the film still holds our interest and succeeds in making us uneasy by its creepy atmosphere. The ending will seem abrupt; the end lines informing us of the sad and shocking fate of one of the characters; and the last one about the eventual fate of Mengele only partially fulfilling our desire for justice denied by the sudden conclusion of the story. Still, as a parable of evil and the seduction of the innocent this film draws and holds our attention the way a flame attracts a moth.