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'The German Doctor' is underplayed, which makes it even scarier

'Doctor' follows a doctor calling himself Helmut Gregor living in a South American village who, the audience discovers, is actually notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

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Josef Mengele (Àlex Brendemühl) shows a troubling fascination with Lilith (Florencia Bado) in ‘The German Doctor.’

Samuel Goldwyn Films

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It’s appropriate that “The German Doctor,” set in Patagonia in 1960, resembles a monster movie even though we encounter no ghouls or goblins. The monsters here are strictly of the human variety. Based on a novel by the film’s writer-director, Lucía Puenzo, the film is a fictional imagining of how a German doctor, calling himself Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl), insinuates himself into the South American village where he has taken up residence. As becomes clear all too soon, the good doctor is Josef Mengele, the notorious perpetrator of hideous human experiments at Auschwitz.

The village is peopled with blond, German-speaking residents; a local school has photos of alumni beside a Nazi flag; and mysterious hydroplanes are constantly landing and taking off from a nearby lake. The spacious hotel housing Mengele is run by Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and Enzo (Diego Peretti), whose 12-year-daughter, Lilith (Florencia Bado), is unusually diminutive for her age – a source of fascination for Mengele, who convinces her reluctant parents to submit to “genetic research,” developed in his home-grown lab, to grow her bones.

Since the real-life Mengele, who fled to South America along with numerous other Nazi war criminals, was obsessed with eugenics, it makes sense that the Mengele of this film would be fixated on Lilith, whom he deems a “perfect specimen.” Because Lilith is constantly taunted by her schoolmates, she is flattered and excited by Mengele’s promise to make her grow. Only Enzo seems suspicious of Mengele almost from the start. His growing horror at what is slowly unwinding matches our own, especially when Eva becomes pregnant with twins. Twins were another Mengele fixation.

For people whose movie memories of Mengele conjure up Gregory Peck in “The Boys From Brazil,” “The German Doctor” will probably seem old-fashioned and underplayed. Puenzo doesn’t allow her actors, most notably Brendemühl, to go all histrionic on us – which, of course, makes everything seem even scarier.

Within its straightforward limits, “The German Doctor” is highly effective, but it doesn’t stray beyond those confines. It doesn’t do more than sketch the network of collaborators and criminals in this creepy community or delve more than superficially into Mengele’s life history. That the film doesn’t attempt to provide a psychological analysis of him I find commendable. Some monsters, at least in the movies, are beyond analysis.

Puenzo may have started out to make something more ambitious than an intelligent, real-world horror thriller, but what she did achieve is still commendable. The melodramatics in this movie may be cooked up, but the fears it conjures are very real. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief nudity.)

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