German Doctor, The

At the beginning of the Argentinian thriller, The German Doctor, a 12-year-old girl named Lilith is approached by a handsome stranger — a creepy sort, with a dashing moustache, watchful eyes and a disconcerting undercurrent of violence reminiscent of Robert Shaw in Jaws — who wants to see her doll.

The doll has a flap in its chest, but inside, where the clockwork heart should be, it’s empty.

It’s a fitting metaphor in a story that is filled with them.

The year is 1960, and we’re in Patagonia, where Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann will shortly be captured by the Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

As it happens, the creepy doctor, who goes by the name of Helmut Gregor (Alex Brendemühl), has the grim charm and dark interest in twins of another wanted man, Josef Mengele, whose experiments on children in concentration camps were among the most horrific atrocities of the war.

Gregor takes an interest in both Lilith (Florencia Bado) and her family, especially her mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro), who is pregnant with twins.

He presents himself as an animal researcher with a special interest in growth hormones — he could help the undersized Lilith reach normal height with just a few harmless injections.

He also tries to befriend Lilith’s father Enzo (Diego Peretti), who works as a doll maker.

A factory with rows of wide-eyed heads perched on shelves is just one of the many disconcerting images in The German Doctor (the Argentinian title is Wakolda, which is the name of Lilith’s doll.)

The German Doctor is both a thriller and a melodrama.

Director Lucia Puenzo, who also wrote the novel on which the story is based, creates a sense of dread in Gregor’s perverse interest in Lilith’s family, and in the lightly sketched background of a community of Nazi sympathizers who support an expatriate community of fugitives.

It’s helped along by a setting — the family owns an isolated inn perched on a magnificent Argentinian lake and surrounded by mountains — that’s reminiscent of the chilling hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

At times you expect Gregor to stick his head through a door and announce, “Here’s Josef.”

What is lost in the family story is some of the tension of the manhunt.

The Mossad is after Mengele, and one of its agents, Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger) — a real-life character in a story that is otherwise mostly fictional — is on his trail.

But her investigations are subsumed by the drama of Lilith’s troubles at school, where she is bullied because of her height, and the unsettling attraction that both Lilith and Eva feel toward this mysterious stranger.

In its quiet way, though, The German Doctor stands as an indictment of how Mengele and others like him managed to escape after the war and were supported in their new identities in hidden enclaves around the world.

Brendemühl brings him to frightening life. With his obsessive attention to detail and understated menace, Gregor is a chilling villain, as heartless as Lilith’s doll. Evil, it appears, is not always banal.

-JAY STONE, OTTAWA CITIZEN

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