The German Doctor isn’t the kind of thriller that hits viewers over the head with melodramatic obviously scary moments, but it does sneak up on us to the point that we feel sufficiently creeped out and surprised by the end of it all that makes for a surprisingly entertaining ride. It’s a quietly unassuming based on a true story chiller that really gets inside your head.
On a lonely Patagonian highway in 1960, a German doctor (Alex Brendemühl) meets an Argentinean family. He follows them along the desert road to a small town where the family will be starting a new life. Eva (Natalia Oreiro), Enzo (Diego Peretti), and their three children welcome the doctor into their home and entrust their young daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado) to his care not knowing that they are harboring one of the most dangerous and vile war criminals on the face of the planet: Josef Mengele.
It’s not often that we see an author adapt their own work for the screen and subsequently direct it, but Lucía Puenzo makes it work. It’s a strong film with equally strong material that doesn’t skimp on the detail or the subtle ability to make our skin crawl. Puenzo sets the stage in such a subtle way that you almost forget you’re watching a film surrounding one of history’s greatest monsters. She successfully lulls the viewer into a false sense of security, adding a genuine aura of discomfort even when we know exactly how Mengele’s real life story unfolds. It’s well shot and stays cohesive thanks to that excellent atmosphere. The film’s ending is also as refreshingly low key as the rest of the film.
Brendemühl’s Mengele is downright magnetic to watch as he begins to settle back into his life and his experiments. Never overt about his aims, goals, and secrets, he’s great in letting a stare go for a thousand yards. His cool, calm demeanour is even more harrowing as he begins to experiment on children and pregnant woman.
The rest of the ensemble does some fine work, but they simply orbit around Brendemühl’s performance. Only young Florencia Bado, in her first on screen role, truly matches the energy brought to the experience by Brendemühl. Her young Lilith get picked on and tormented at school, and it’s easy see her drawn to this magnetic monster that has taken up with her family. She manages plays up the film’s sense of foreboding and dread excellently for a young actor.
The German Doctor, while a fictionalized piece of history, allows us to jump into a time in Argentina where the idea of an inhuman monster of a war criminal sitting across from you at dinner could be a world shattering reality. It’s a solid exercise in slow-burn storytelling and filmmaking that remind us that is can be quiet, often unassuming moments are often the most terrifying.