Screens at CIFF: 10/18 & 10/19
World premiere: 21 May, 2013, Cannes International Film Festival

I suppose if the situation was reversed, and The German Doctor was the movie that I think I want it to be, then I'd be bitching in the other direction: that the film was a hopelessly tacky and crass and exploitative abuse of one of the most genuinely horrifying moral crimes in the history of human cinema. So the poor movie can't win for losing, I guess.

That being said, in its current incarnation, something feels "off". Director Lucía Puenzo and screenwriter Lucía Puenzo (adapting a book by author Lucía Puenzo) don't seem to be operating on precisely the same level, which is kind of a nifty trick, when you think about it. I can't decide exactly where the disjunction is, if it's a script that wants to be more of a crazed genre effort than the director has the stomach for, or if it's a director that keeps trying to smuggle in horrifying undertones into a script with no place for them (or if I'm just into making up false binaries). I only know, for certain, that there is a film in which the history of Dr. Josef Mengele's attempts to continue his genetic experiments in South America after the Nazis lost the war are treated with grave seriousness, and Argentina's complicity or not in letting him thrive while hiding in olin sight is questioned with insight and humility; that there is a film in which Mengele's attempts to create a world of (in his eyes) genetically perfect human specimens is literalised in shots of row after row of flawless porcelain dolls lit and framed like the killer's trophies in a slasher movie, with a shrieking soundtrack to match; and that these are not the same movie.

Taking place in 1959, the movie concerns a handsome nuclear family moving back to the mother's stomping grounds in Patagonia to reopen her father's old hotel. This would be Eva (Natalia Oreiro), of German-Argentine stock; her husband, Enzo (Diego Peretti) is more obviously of full-fledge Latin stock, and their three children fall all over that spectrum, though the one we care about most, Lilith (Florencia Bado), is the blondest and whitest of them all, though also the weakest, physically; born two months premature, she has been perpetually undersized her whole life.

If all that seems like a clinical way of looking at the characters, it's just the way we're encouraged to think of them by their companion one night as they all bunk in a shack to keep out of a particularly hellacious storm: a pleasantly-spoken doctor named Helmut (Àlex Brendemühl), who wears what you could try hard as you like not to call a "Hitler mustache", but eventually you would give up. Which is our first inkling, even before we see his medical journal, illustrated with drawings that are precise enough for a medical journal and grisly enough for the Necronomicon, that something might be up with this fellow and his more than casual interest in the genetics of his new friends. And way before we arrive with Lillith and her siblings at the unpleasantly nationalistic Germans school nestled in the mountains, where "Deutschland Uber Alles" is sung with enthusiasm and a lot of people speak to and about Helmut with the unmissable tones of We Have a Secret, and archivist Nora Edloc (Elena Roger) and her boyfriend Klaus (Guillermo Pfening) are busy hiding old photographs of the older generations of the school celebrating Hitlers birthday and waving swastika flags.

The overriding problem with The German Doctor, beyond a shadow of the doubt, is that it has just enough in the way of horror imagery, or at least imagery from a much more demented film with horrific elements, that it's really distracting how much the filmmakers don't want to commit to it. This is a movie with an over-the-top Nazi school hiding in Patagonia, for fuck's sake, and while I don't doubt the reality that such a place existed (and very little about Nazi pageantry wasn't over-the top), there's only a certain level of heightened melodrama that a film can stand before the filmmakers need to admit to themselves, humbly, that they are in fact making a heightened melodrama. And look, I like the film as it stands. It tells a rock-solid real-life tale through interesting and likable protagonists and finds a way to make the horrors of Nazi science real in the context of an everyday family, which probably takes more effort and maybe is even more meaningful than painting it as a cosmic horror. The film is well-acted (Bado is a terrific child actor, in particular), well-shot without relying too hard on polish and cheap imagery of Patagonian mountains, and the score is only a little intrusive.

Still, it's so close to being completely vicious and nasty, and I'd just like to know what that movie looks like, is all. Maybe this film could have gotten a little bit quicker to admitting that yes, this guy who you assume is Mengele is in fact Mengele, and been more upfront about the identity of a Mossad agent introduced in such an obvious way that short of an introductory musical number titled "I'm in the Mossad (And I Couldn't Be Mohhappy)", I don't know how they could have been less cagey about it. And maybe if it had done this, we could have had a terrific cat and mouse thriller about the Nazi and the spy crossing swords. Maybe there could have been some grotesque nightmare imagery to pay off the ominous lines about what Mengele was doing "…with twins", and instead of the terrifying reveal that one is several grams heavier than the other, we could have had a good old-fashions Cronenberg-style birth scene to go along with the horrifying doll factory. But we get none of this; we only get a very solid, self-consciously "nice" movie aching with all its soul to be naughtier.