Lindsay Harvey, Marketing Admistrator at Picturehouse, previews today’s Discover Tuesday presentation of Lucía Puenzo’s WAKOLDA.
Adapted from director Lucía Puenzo’s own factually inspired novel, WAKOLDA treads a fine line somewhere between a suspense thriller and a delicately atmospheric art film. Based on the true story of Nazi geneticist Josef Mengele’s time hiding in Argentina to escape the Israeli agents on his trail, this unsettling and atmospheric piece adopts a slower, more sinister approach than Franklin J. Schaffner’s undertaking of similar subject matter in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL.
In 1960s Patagonia, an Argentinian family are making their way to a small community of expatriate Germans to reopen an old hotel where they are befriended by a mysterious German doctor (Spanish actor Àlex Brendemühl, memorable as the mundane serial killer in THE HOURS OF THE DAY).
The doctor quickly wheedles his way into their lives and even their house, charming them with his intelligence and manners. He demonstrates a great interest in their 12-year-old daughter, Lilith (a beautifully innocent Florencia Bado) who is small for her age. He is adamant that, using experimental techniques, he can make her taller. The doctor’s interest in her is reciprocated; she is bullied because of her size and is flattered by the inordinate amount of attention he pays her. Theirs is the central relationship and it is particularly unnerving as we don’t know what he wants from her, exactly.
There’s a building sense of dread throughout, heightened by an ominous score; the eerie ‘sanatorium’ next door, hydroplanes coming and going regularly and a local school practising discipline which wouldn’t have been out of place in the Third Reich. Meanwhile, the Israeli Mossad lurks in the background, adding to the growing suspense. Alongside the thriller narrative however, Puenzo also allows room for a broader contextual sweep that reflects candidly on Argentina’s open-door policy to Nazi war criminals.
Parallel subplots are full of obvious symbolism; Lilith’s father Enzo, a doll-maker, goes into business with the doctor, who convinces him that the dolls must all be made exactly the same. Unfinished eyeless dolls stacked in a dingy factory evoke concentration camp corpses and later, rows of mass produced, identical dolls looks like an Aryan youth parade.
The story comes from the blissfully ignorant perspective of Lilith, who can have no idea of the past horrors that Mengele is responsible for. The clanging alarm bells set off by his behaviour serve to warn a contemporary audience of atrocities that the other characters on screen remain naive about. It’s an interesting narrative strategy; rather than attempting to understand Mengele’s evil nature, Puenzo presents it as simply beyond comprehension.
The film is shot against the stunning background of Bariloche, and at one point Mengele remarks how much this region of Argentina makes him feel at home. The serenity of the Argentine mountain landscape provides an effective contradiction of the malevolent narrative at hand, and it is the juxtaposition between the beauty of the setting and his monstrous deeds that makes WAKOLDA so unnerving.