“He thought I was a perfect specimen—except for my height,” says Lilith (Florencia Bado) in voiceover, describing the reaction of the eponymous character (Alex Brendemühl) when he first encountered her as a beautiful 12-year-old whose stunted growth made her look much younger. The doctor's assessment is a fitting introduction to this film in which things always feel off balance even as the plot points click all too neatly into place.
Brendemühl exudes a reptilian combination of charisma and menace—solicitous, attentive, and handsome, but with a posture that's just a little too erect and a searching gaze that's a little too clinical. Lilith and her family never seem to realize quite who they're dealing with, but one suspects early on that the doctor is the notorious Josef Mengele, a suspicion that's soon confirmed. That revelation is unveiled in an almost offhand way that's typical of the film's matter-of-fact take on even the most incredible events, a reflection of the sensibility of its smart but sheltered young narrator, who notices far more than she can comprehend.
Puenzo's story is a fictional take on an actual six-month period during which Mengele was on the run, living incognito to evade the Mossad agents who were extraditing Nazi war criminals for trial in Israel. For most of his 35 years in South America, though, the doctor hid in plain sight, often under his own name, and The German Doctor makes it easy to imagine how that could have happened.
The doctor fits a little too perfectly into Lilith's family. Lilith's height gives him a chance to test the risky growth hormones he had been trying out on cattle—catnip to the sociopathic scientist, who had a lifelong fascination with genetic “purity” and genetic modification. Lilith's mother, Eva (Natalia Oreiro), is pregnant, allowing him to break out the prenatal vitamins he also loved to experiment with—and, when when she turns out to be carrying two babies, to do the experimentation on twins that was one of Mengele's trademarks. His attempt to win over Lilith's father, Enzo (Diego Peretti), is all too tidy as well. Enzo lovingly repairs and makes one-of-a-kind dolls, which Puenzo uses to hammer home a point about the evils of eugenics: Enzo talks to his daughter about how each one—and each person—is unique, while the doctor insists on mass-producing dolls from one of Enzo's designs.
It's unsettling to watch this pathologically self-assured sociopath worm his way into the heart of a sensitive girl and her family. The magnificent, sparsely populated settings underscore the family's vulnerability, particularly in the beginning, when the doctor's sedan glides behind their truck on an otherwise deserted highway. But the fictional story is too neatly predetermined to feel truly creepy. Much more unnerving is the nonfictional backdrop against which the fictional story unfolds.
German culture dominates Bariloche, the isolated mountain town where Lilith's ethnically German mother grew up, from the ur-Alpine chalet built by Lilith's grandparents to the Nazi sympathizers who seem to be everywhere—buzzing about the doctor's arrival at a party, performing clandestine plastic surgery in the well defended mansion next to the chalet, or accompanying the doctor on an excursion to a bombed-out bunker. The movie's understated realism works in its favor here, making neo-Nazis feel all the more threatening by portraying them not as monsters, but as regular citizens, like the parents at the German school Eva attended as a girl, their faces positively glowing as they sing along to a song about the beauty of the fatherland. The school no longer flies a swastika flag, but when long-limbed blond students heckle Lilith there, calling her a “dwarf,” or the principal hectors a boy for having started a fight by insisting on “calm” and “control,” it's clear that its fascistic values are unchanged. Admiring young German-Argentinians often hover near the doctor, offering their adulation and support to the man they know to be Auschwitz's Angel of Death. When the doctor asks one of these eager acolytes for help in escaping the Israelis, the man is thrilled to be of service. “Anyone would be honored,” he says.