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Can a Movie Make Josef Mengele Relatable?

Samuel Goldwyn Films

The German Doctor (director: Lucia Puenzo)

We are in Patagonia, on a road that lasts 300 miles. A family are ready to make the journey in a battered white van—father, mother and three children, and the mother is pregnant again. Then a man asks if they would mind if he drove along behind them. It is a desolate place, where the journey needs to be made in daylight. Yet it’s an odd request. The man is tall, cultivated, and better educated than the locals. He has an impressive new car, a steel blue sedan. He is more the authority figure, yet he is asking for a little guidance. Or is he trying to attach himself to them, and the pretty twelve-year-old daughter he has started talking to? The story is as poised as the setting is desolate. You have to wonder. The man is pleasant enough, though guarded, and very watchful. He is handsome, helpful, but his face can turn cold. You’d find him hard to place, I think, if the movie wasn’t called The German Doctor.

Would it be a more valuable film if the title was different and if the man was shy, comic, impulsive and warm? Or is that all impossible if his real name is Dr. Josef Mengele?

Mengele had a degree in medicine from the University of Munich and he was once regarded as a promising researcher. But then he became attached to the concentration camp at Auschwitz where he carried out many experiments on unwilling subjects with a view to making genetic modifications. This was a warped kind of medicine, creative but cruel. He slipped away from that camp in January 1945 and in the aftermath of war he escaped to South America. Exactly how that happened, and how he lived in that new world, often using his old name, is a mystery. Of course, he was not the only war criminal on the run. Adolph Eichmann, one of the managerial brains behind the Holocaust, was arrested by Mossad agents in the suburbs of Buenos Aires in 1960, and shipped back to Israel. At the time, the Mossad believed Mengele was nearby, and not long thereafter he escaped to Paraguay.

News of Eichmann’s capture comes in the course of The German Doctor, and the Mengele figure gets that hunted look. Already, he has insinuated himself into that family he drove with: he is trying to make the 12-year-old girl grow taller and he is interested in the twins born to the mother. Twins are good for experiments. The medical details are vague, but the Mengele character keeps a notebook with fond yet ominous drawings and he has his course of treatment, which seems obsessive and sinister. But maybe the real Mengele believed he was on the track of something useful. It’s the dramatic suggestion of the film that Mengele becomes so attached to this family that he actually puts himself at more risk of being captured. But that is hard to pull off. The more obvious way of telling a Mengele story is to have Gregory Peck as a raging monster (never quite Peck’s style) in a South American jungle, where he is trying to breed infant Fuhrers. That was called The Boys from Brazil (from an Ira Levin novel), and it was a shameless melodrama and a pretty scary film.

The German Doctor is written and directed by Lucia Puenzo, and it comes from a novel she had written that seems to be a fairly free imagining about what might have happened to Mengele. As far as is known, he was not in Patagonia, nor does he seem to have encountered a family like the one in the film. The picture is well enough made to be wary of getting too close to the Mengele figure. But if you’re not going to do a documentary, or another Boys from Brazil, what is left but getting into the complexity of the man and the possibility that his evil was accompanied by warmer instincts and moments in which he may have tried to be a true doctor?

I realize that can sound like suggesting Josef Mengele might have been misunderstood—and I don’t offer that hope. Still, we owe it to ourselves to be prepared to deal with wickedness in any time or place, to realize that it is not necessarily as single-minded or unambiguous as Peck in The Boys from Brazil. There is a remarkable TV movie, Conspiracy (2001), based on records of the Wannsee Conference of 1942 to organize the Holocaust. Indeed, the movie is simply a series of meetings, but (as written by Loring Mandel and directed by Frank Pierson) it has the novel effect of making us aware of a human reality in the monsters: Kenneth Branagh plays Heydrich, Colin Firth is Wilhelm Stuckart, and Stanley Tucci is Eichmann.

We come away from Conspiracy properly afraid of these men, yet more afraid that we see how easily they might have passed for a while in polite society. They were men who wanted to think well of themselves, and they were not forces of unmitigated evil. They were a mess and much more dangerous because of the degrees of eloquence, charm and humor they might possess. I can see no other reason to make The German Doctor but for that sense of context. As it is, Alex Brendemuhl seems tentative about playing Mengele. So he becomes the more restrained or masked. That is a plausible strategy: The real Mengele must have wished to be unobtrusive. On the other hand, a story should lure a character into the open.

It’s common to wish movies had been better written and directed. In this case Lucia Puenzo (the daughter of Luis Puenzo, who made The Official Story) is skilled and alert to suspense, but she seems timid over getting to know her character too well. As a result, under this title, The German Doctor is both predictable and oppressive. Whereas, the theme of people living under cover for long periods of time—think of Robert Redford in last year’s The Company You Keep—can be fascinating. Mengele was never captured. He drowned while swimming in Brazil in 1979. But that cannot eclipse how for decades some people in South America knew who he was and let sleeping dogs lie. In the same way, in Germany in the ’30s, and in so many other countries at so many other times, the specter of great evil says, “How are you?” on the street and hopes we have a nice day.