Wakolda, directed by Lucía Puenzo

Disquiet grows into horror as an infamous Nazi doctor takes an unhealthy interest in a young girl in Argentina, finds Philip Kemp

August 7, 2014

Wakolda

Directed by Lucía Puenzo
Starring Àlex Brendemühl and Florencia Bado
On general release in the UK from 8 August 2014

Only gradually, as she starts to gain insight into his motives and guess at his past, does Lilith begin to mistrust her new friend

For a novelist to script the screen version of his or her novel is by no means uncommon. Recent examples include Salman Rushdie with Midnight’s Children (2012) and John Banville with The Sea (2013) – with, admittedly, variable results. But for a novelist to direct the film of her own novel, as Lucía Puenzo does with Wakolda, is far rarer. True, Orson Welles did it with Confidential Report (aka Mr Arkadin, 1955), but then Welles was always a law unto himself.

What’s more, this isn’t the first time that Puenzo has brought off this double act. In 2009, she directed the film version of her first novel, The Fish Child (she has written five so far, and Wakolda is the most recent). For a novel to be compressed into the typical running time of about 90 minutes requires some ruthless choices: characters to be compressed or dropped, subtleties to be ironed out. How much harder is it when the director is also the novelist, obliged to kill her own darlings?

Interviewed on the PopMatters website, Puenzo said that she had “thought adapting my own work would be easier. Even if you know your characters inside out, you tend to be more [indulgent] with yourself. There are many things I tried not to kill in draft after draft, only because I liked them. I think it’s a longer process.”

In Wakolda, the most fundamental change from page to screen is in the narrative perspective. The action is set in Puenzo’s native Argentina in 1959-60. A family – father Enzo, mother Eva and their three children, one of whom is 12-year-old Lilith – stop at a petrol station on a long journey south into Patagonia, on their way to the Andean town of Bariloche. A well-spoken man with a German accent who has also pulled in introduces himself as Dr Helmut Gregor and asks if he can follow them in his car as the road is said to be dangerous. When they arrive in Bariloche, where Enzo plans to reopen his in-laws’ lakeside hotel, Helmut befriends the family, especially Lilith, and soon asks if he can move in. Gradually we come to realise that Helmut is the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

The events are seen predominantly from Lilith’s perspective, and it is her voice-over that we hear from time to time. The novel, by contrast, is told largely from Mengele’s point of view, although not in the first person. Other changes – the loss of a subplot, the merging of two characters – have the effect of tightening the narrative, and on the whole it is the film (more focused, with cleaner lines) that works better.

The story is to some degree based on fact. Mengele did indeed flee to South America at the end of the Second World War, and spent the rest of his life there, dying in a swimming accident off the Brazilian coast in 1979. (His later years were the subject of a far more sensationalised film, Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Boys from Brazil, 1978.) Many Nazis took refuge in Argentina, which had (and still has) a large expatriate German population; the country declared war on Germany only a month before VE-Day, possibly in order to get Argentinian agents in place and ready to help senior Nazis to escape. It was in Buenos Aires that Adolf Eichmann was tracked down and captured by Mossad agents in 1960, an event that occurs off-screen towards the end of Puenzo’s film.

Natalia Oreiro and Diego Peretti in Wakolda

The Patagonian town of Bariloche, where most of Wakolda takes place, has particularly strong German connections. Set on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, in the foothills of the Andes near the border with Chile, it was founded by German immigrants and has long attracted settlers from Germany, Austria and Slovenia. With its mountainous, lakeside setting, ski slopes and Central European architecture, it could easily pass for a town in the Bavarian Alps. For many decades, former SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke, complicit in the Fosse Ardeatine massacre in Rome in 1944, lived there openly as a teacher in the town’s German school. There are even persistent rumours that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun found refuge there after 1945.

There is no evidence, however, that Mengele ever stayed in Bariloche, although he was certainly in Argentina in the late 1950s. In Puenzo’s account, he is travelling south to join a compatriot who is running a clinic outside the town, but becomes fascinated by the family he meets en route, initially because Lilith, who is blonde and beautiful, is far too small for her age. When he learns that her mother, Eva, herself of German descent, is pregnant with twins, the link to the kinds of experiments he carried out on children and infants at Auschwitz makes the family irresistible to him.

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Lilith and Mengele. Lilith, fiercely intelligent and independent-minded (a performance of astonishing assurance from Florencia Bado in her screen debut), is fascinated by this soft-spoken man who shows her more attention than anyone else ever has. So when the doctor, in Àlex Brendemühl’s portrayal a much warmer figure than his equivalent in the novel, offers to treat her with growth hormones, she is eager to agree, especially since she is mocked for being a “dwarf” at her new school. Eva agrees, albeit with misgivings, but her husband, suspicious of this man who converses with Eva in German (which Enzo does not understand), refuses his permission. The treatment goes ahead without his knowledge. Only gradually, as she starts to gain insight into his motives and guess at his past, does Lilith begin to mistrust her new friend.

There was scope for melodrama here, but Puenzo avoids the temptation. Instead she goes for an accumulation of disquieting details: the dolls that Enzo makes (he is a watch-repairer by profession, but doll-making is his passion), all blue-eyed, blonde and impeccably Aryan; a photograph of Lilith’s school (previously her mother’s) celebrating “the Führer’s birthday” in 1959; the doctor’s clasp knife, with its “Blut und Ehre” (blood and honour) inscription; his casual remarks such as “Mixed blood is impure – it destroys the memory of who we were”; and, above all, the frequent shots of Mengele’s notebooks, full of beautifully executed sketches of naked human bodies, male and female, adults and children, deformed torsos, conjoined twins, two-headed calves – and, briefly glimpsed, a classic Nazi depiction of the ewige Jude (eternal Jew), hook-nosed and malignant.

As in her previous films XXY (2007) and The Fish Child, Puenzo shows acute insights into the amorphous, emerging sexuality of a young girl, although, as a pre-teen, Lilith is younger than the protagonists of the earlier films. “Children at this age”, Puenzo told the Fandor website, “are becoming small adults, politically, ideologically and sexually. Everything is changing in them, even before they realise it, and there is something very powerful about that process.” That Lilith’s sexual feelings are focused on a man so much older than she is, and one, as she slowly becomes aware, whose interest in her is something far more sinister than paedophilia, inexorably darkens the texture of the film. When it becomes evident that Mengele is extending his inhumane experiments to her newborn twin brothers, the mood moves close to nightmare.

The film’s subtle horror is all the more effective for being set amid the cool, serene beauty of the Andean landscape, evocatively photographed by Nicolás Puenzo, the director’s younger brother. With Wakolda (the name of Lilith’s favourite doll), Lucía Puenzo has created a telling study in moral unease, and one that draws powerfully on a discreditable aspect of her country’s history.

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Reader's comments (1)

Important film for those who support the rewriting of past history as if all must be regarded as of its time.

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