The German Doctor takes as its horror film premise the ultimate Jewish nightmare. The Third Reich has fallen, but evil’s remnants still reverberate across the globe, seeking refuge in sympathetic corners of the world, in this case postwar Argentina. Lucía Puenzo’s sturdy historical drama centers on a tight-knit family that slowly discovers that Josef Mengele, one of the SS’s most notorious officers, is a guest at their rural Patagonian hotel, and that despite ample warning signs, and a wary dad, they have let a monster into their lives.
Mengele (Álex Brendemühl) quickly fixates on the family’s physically underdeveloped daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado), 12 years old but far younger in appearance. Lilith’s mother, Eva (Natalia Oreiro), raised in a German school with an uncomfortable Nazi-laced history, proves particularly susceptible to the mysterious guest’s overtures, buying into promises that, if fulfilled, would cure Lilith’s stunted growth. (It’s also creepy to note that Eva is pregnant with twins, another of Mengele’s unhealthy scientific preoccupations.)
Bado is a compelling and at times magnetic presence, and the film misses her whenever she’s offscreen. Her Lilith inhabits her physicality unselfconsciously, and without a trace of preciousness. When she falls from a tree, she thinks nothing of her banged-up knees, as if they don’t really belong to her. And it’s just as well, because under the circumstances they don’t: even at 12 her body has already become someone else’s battleground.