Lucia Puenzo’s first feature film, “XXY,” served notice that another important voice was emerging from the New Argentine Cinema. Her third film, “The German Doctor,” which opens Friday, April 25, suggests that Puenzo’s voice has matured rapidly. Her artistic growth, no doubt, has been fueled by her multiplicity of activities. In a period of only 10 years, she has written and published five novels (including “Wakolda,” the basis for the new film), three feature films, three shorts and two TV mini-series. Granta chose her as one of the 20 best young Hispanophone novelists a couple of years ago and, although the competition is formidable, I suspect she will soon be recognized as one of Argentina’s most promising younger filmmakers as well.
Like her first two features, “XXY” and “The Fish Child,” Puenzo’s new film pivots on how sexuality is inflected by the nature of the body and the competing pressures imposed by society and the dictates of supposed science. In 1960s Patagonia, Lilith (newcomer Florencia Bado) is going through the awkward transition from child to teenager. She is the smallest student in her new school and feels the understandable need to grow up fast and to fit in. Unfortunately, her new neighbor, Helmut Gregor (Alex Brendemühl) takes an unusually intense interest in her plight; he is a doctor of mysterious means, origins and intentions, who is engaged in experiments with growth hormones. He’s also obsessed with twins and ideas of racial purity, and it’s not a spoiler to say that his real name is Josef Mengele. Although he is a rather chilly, even forbidding presence, he ingratiates himself with her family and begins to include Lilith and her very pregnant mother Eve (Natalia Oreiro) in his experiments.
In the meantime, though, Lilith is befriended by Nora Eldoc, who is working as archivist and photographer at the German-language school to which the girl and one of her brothers are being sent. The school has its own sinister past, one that coincides nicely with “Gregor’s” needs for secrecy and his plans for the future. Nora, however, is someone whose agenda obviously diverges from his; when we hear her speaking Hebrew later in the film, it merely confirms what we suspected. When Eichmann is captured by the Mossad, things spin quickly out of control.
Despite that plot synopsis, “The German Doctor” is not a thriller. We know fairly early in the film that “Helmut Gregor” is not who he claims to be, and that the school’s past includes the expected profusion of Nazi salutes and swastika-bearing flags. Instead, Puenzo focuses her attention on Lilith’s growing ambivalence about her new self-appointed mentor. As in her previous features, Puenzo displays a real gift for getting inside her young heroines’ heads and, more important, bringing us into their subjective states through subtleties of camera movement and framing.
Our attention is not on the growing realization that Gregor is Mengele but on Lilith’s realization that whoever he is, he’s not the man he pretends to be. Like Alex, the intersex 15-year-old in “XXY,” Lilith doesn’t understand what is happening to her; all she knows is that her body is somehow betraying her, the doctors are behaving strangely and she is being bullied. Her confusion only makes the interpersonal crisis all the more poignant. How a young girl, looking for an emotional anchor in a time of personal turbulence, deals with such the realization that her would-be savior is anything but becomes the heart of the film and, like the mechanical hearts provided for the dolls that her father makes, it beats steadily, implacably, as the larger drama plays itself out before her bewildered eyes.
“The German Doctor,” written and directed by Lucia Puenzo, opens Friday, April 25 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (Broadway and 62nd Street) and the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.).