Film & CD Review: Wakolda (The German Doctor)

Wakolda (retitled The German Doctor in the US) is the latest film from Argentine writer-director Lucía Puenzo. Little known in the English speaking world, Lucía Penzo is the daughter of Luis Puenzo, celebrated for La historia oficial, which in 1986 won the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign (Language) Film, as well as sweeping nine of the Argentinian Film Critics Association Awards, including Best Film. Lucía co-wrote her father’s best work, La Puta y La Bellena, which I discussed here, and on current evidence, apart from being a fine writer, she has inherited her father’s directorial talents. Evidence of the regard with which she is held in her home country is in the fact that Wakolda was the official Argentine entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2014 Academy Awards. In the end the film was not selected for the Oscar short list.

The feature is an Argentinian, Spanish, French, Norwegian co-production, and includes some of the same artists who worked on La Puta y La Bellena, including the editor Hugo Primero and the composing team of Daniel Tarrab and Andres Andrés Goldstein. It is through Daniel Tarrab that I am reviewing the film now, as following my writing about La Puta y La Ballena, he sent me a promo DVD and soundtrack of the new work, the third film, following XXY (2007) and The Fish Child (2009), the two composers have scored for Lucía Puenzo.

Wakolda is set in a remote part of Patagonia in 1960 and is adapted from the director’s own novel of the same name (the novel is in Spanish and is available in French and German translations, but so far not in English). A family, Eva (Natalia Oreiro), Enzo (Diego Peretti) and their three children are traveling back to the town where Eva was born, San Carlos de Bariloche, in the foothills of the Andes on the southern shore of lake Nahuel Huapi, where they plan to reopen the family hotel.

Along the road they meet a middle-aged German (Alex Brendemühl) who asks if he can follow their route through the bleak and isolated country. It turns out he is a doctor, and soon to be the family’s new neighbour, living at another house on the lake, where a sea plane regularly comes and goes. The doctor is fascinated by Lilith (Florencia Bado), the girl in the family, who is 12, but who, born prematurely, has the physical development of an eight or nine year old.

The doctor prefers the beauty of the still closed hotel to his own accommodation, and makes the family an offer they can’t refuse to become a guest for the next six months. Soon he is inveigling his way further into the family’s life. The father designs beautiful dolls, and the doctor offers to become a business partner. This is a ruse. He is more interested in Lilith’s health, and proposes to treat her with growth hormones. He talks about genetics at the dinner table. When he discovers that Eva is pregnant he becomes still more interested in the family. Meanwhile Lilith is suffering bulling at school on account of her size, and the school librarian has suspicions about the identity of the doctor.

Florencia Bado as Lilith

Florencia Bado as Lilith

Those who know their modern history will quickly work out who the doctor is. While the story is fictional it is historically documented that the former SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke escaped to Argentina after WWII and was the director of the German School of Bariloche for many years. The town, where many families of German extraction had settled before WWII, became a haven for Nazi war criminals. Speculating from these historical facts, Wakolda starts as a drama, a coming of age story, and develops into a tense thriller with an atmosphere at once dreamlike and nightmarish. It is in the truest sense a horror film, not by way of genre, but in that it deals with the aftermath of some of the most sociopathic evil of modern times. The film builds to a chilling finale, the whole coming in at a taut 93 minutes, much seen from a child’s point of view, the story unfolding almost elliptically, told as much in the spaces between scenes, a minimal approach which makes the horror all the more stark.

In some ways Wakolda echoes, yet is the antithesis of, Pan’s Labyrinth. Both confront a young girl with the terrors of fascism, placing her face to face with a terrible evil, but Wakolda avoids the sick romanticism of Pan’s Labyrinth. A surreal visit to a doll factory is quietly unsettling.

Alex Brendemühl as 'The German Doctor

Alex Brendemühl as ‘The German Doctor’

The performances are naturalistic, understated, utterly convincing. There is no melodrama in Alex Brendemühl’s superbly controlled portrayal of a man with a terrible past and absolutely no conscience. Florencia Bado is marvellous, giving the sort of compelling performance which seems beyond Hollywood child actors. Diego Peretti is excellent as the quietly thoughtful family man taken out of his depth by circumstances and Natalia Oreiro astonishing as the mother, tormented by guilt and desperate to do right by her children.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the American release has gone for the more literal title, The German Doctor. Wakolda, I won’t tell you what it means, has a more resonant, symbolic, meaning. Beautifully shot, elegantly made, with barely wasting a frame, Wakolda tells a story bigger than its 93 minutes. It could have been a much longer film, expanding on various aspects of the story in faux documentary mode. One can imagine Spielberg making a much lengthier, more detailed, less intimate film out of the same material. But Wakolda says a lot in compact form. It does not outstay its welcome and leaves a powerful impression. It may incidentally serve as an enticement to visit the very beautiful region of lakes and mountains in which the story is set and shot.

Natalia Oreiro & Diego Peretti as Eva & Enzo

Natalia Oreiro & Diego Peretti as Eva & Enzo

The minimal approach is reflected in the score, which is for most of the running length is sparsely present. There is much more music on the album. But what music there is comes effectively into its own for the dramatic finale (which reprises the electric guitar writing of the opening), and greatly enhances a sense of events spiraling beyond the family’s control and into history. The end title music, strings very much to the fore, provides considerable emotional weight.

The soundtrack album (available on CD from Quartet Records and in MP3 form from the usual outlets) runs 41.34 minutes and features 24 tracks including several songs, which work perfectly in context in the film, one feature prominently at a birthday party, but are not particularly enjoyable away from the screen. For fans of the wonderfully lush and lavish score for La Puta y La Bellena there is little here which is as satisfying on album. But the music for the finale, much longer on disc than in the film, is a thrilling piece of guitar driven rock a decade ahead of its setting, but which works both on screen and on disc. Otherwise only the last two cues, ‘The End’ and ‘End Credits’, offer the sort of emotionally rich orchestral writing for which the composers are best known. The soundtrack can really only be recommended to devotees of Daniel Tarrab and Andrés Goldstein, who nevertheless provide an excellent low key score for a most unusual film. Wakolda itself should be sought out by anyone with a serious interest in quality cinema.

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