Helmut Gregor, the title character of The German Doctor, seems like a nice enough fellow.
He smiles a lot, albeit a little creepily, is friendly, says the right things, and pays extra attention to children — perhaps too much attention to children.
Helmut (Alex Brendemuhl) is not a child molester, or at lease not in the usual sense. Instead, he is Josef Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death,” the German doctor who experimented on prisoners, primarily twins, in Nazi concentration camps. He seems bland enough to personify Hannah Arendt’s famous description of Adolf Eichmann, “the banality of evil.”
The German Doctor is based on a true story, but history works against the film. It is well documented that Mengele escaped to South America after World War II, jumping from Argentina to Paraguay and perhaps other locales before drowning in Brazil in 1979. Knowing that this demon eludes capture in Argentina shades any attempt at building a narrative based on his eventual capture.
But enough drama can be found in director Lucia Puenzo’s script to sustain the story of a family meeting Helmut when father Enzo (Diego Peretti) becomes caretaker at a beautiful lakeside resort in rural Argentina. Helmut arrives about the same time, taking a room for six months. He befriends the family, particularly the mother, Eva (Natalia Oreiro), pregnant with twins.
Helmut also pays special attention to 12-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado), whose small body causes her to suffer abuse and ridicule from schoolmates. Helmut offers his help — an uncomfortable assistance since the viewer knows his identity even if the family does not. Before long, Mengele has Eva taking his strange drugs for her pregnancy, while he also treats Lilith with his bogus growth hormones.
Lilith enjoys Helmut’s friendship, lending resonance to her post-event narration, as she pours over Mengele’s illustrated journals. Only safely after his departure does she finally recognize his identity and his evil.
A heavy-handed subplot simultaneously plays out about Mengele assisting Enzo’s creation of ceramic dolls, as though they were live creatures Mengele could breathe life into.
Finally, Enzo and his family count themselves among the lucky ones who encountered the devil and lived to talk about it.
The German Doctor
Rated PG-13, 94 minutes
Opens Friday, May 16 at the Dallas and Plano Angelika