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Wakolda, or The German Doctor, is a beautifully realised period piece – but as a thriller it is lacking.
I never thought that I could be so underwhelmed by a film that takes the Holocaust as it’s subject matter. Being of Jewish descent I usually avoid these films as I find them too upsetting or tawdry. Hollywood often produces tear-jerkers with the Spielbergesque need to put a happy ending on the Holocaust, when of course we know there was none.
However, this film is set after the camps had closed, in Patagonia in 1960 where a German physician has a chance meeting with a young family. The family is on their way to reopen the guest house of a dead grandparent and is unremarkable except for Lilith, a twelve-year-old girl suffering from a growth deficiency. It is Lilith who interests the physician, as this is no ordinary doctor but the infamous Josef Mengele: a Nazi whose scientific ‘research’ at Auschwitz would make Frankenstein blush. So heinous were his crimes against humanity that the Nazis themselves destroyed the records of his findings.
Startlingly the film only vaguely touches upon this. Perhaps this is deliberate, as the Nazis who fled from Europe were men hiding from their past — but there is an odd, almost poetic, manner in which the film addresses this issue using Mengele’s notebooks, which contain Da Vinci-style drawings of everyone of interest he encounters, in particular twins. Mengele was known for gruesomely experimenting on twins at Auschwitz, deliberately creating conjoined twins, none of whom survived. As chance and the plot would have it, Lilith’s mother Eva is pregnant with twins.
Eva is an incredibly attractive woman who has been raised in one of Patagonia’s German communities. It was these communities that often knowingly harboured war criminals after 1945. We guess that she has Nazi sympathies when she leafs through some old photos of her school, including one bearing the Swastika. We then hear her singing with glee at her old school on Lilith’s first day. However, the Aryan school mercilessly bullies Lilith for her imperfect, underdeveloped body. Such bullying is the reason that Eva accepts the offer of secret treatment from the in cognito Mengele. Eva’s attitude sharply opposes that of Lilith’s father Enzo, who asserts throughout that it is our differences that make us individual and we should cherish them. Diego Peretti is brilliantly cast as Enzo: he is more indigenous looking, in stark contrast to his gorgeous wife, and presents a man at peace with himself, one who has escaped the Aryan conditioning.
All of this is a good setting for a thriller, but unfortunately Lilith narrates from the beginning of the film, thereby signalling she will survive any medical experiments performed upon her. Similarly, anyone with any rudimentary knowledge of Nazi war criminals will know that Mengele managed to escape the Mossad for over thirty years. The result is a crippling loss of tension.
This is Wakolda‘s greatest flaw. What is so disappointing for a film with such a great premise, is that it has no suspense. Not every film needs suspense, but we are dealing with a murderous undercover Nazi war criminal who likes to experiment on children, and a central character who is a child. If there is no suspense then we should at least have some great moral foregrounding. What is the moral of this tale? “Never trust a Nazi, especially one who ran a death camp.” Really? Wow, I feel so enlightened. Let’s give Wakolda the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the moral is about acceptance — that to be different is to be unique. Well, quite frankly, Toy Story does that better and without using Nazis.
Although lacking in some basic storytelling functions, Wakolda is not a film totally without merit. One of its shining attributes is the exquisite set and costume design. It not only manages to capture the 1960’s completely but also the rustic simplicity one would imagine of Patagonia. However, when you find yourself engrossed in the detail of a woolly jumper, or admiring the skill of the location scout who found a completely untouched 1930’s swimming bath, you know the film, however beautiful, has probably missed its mark.