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Argentine novelist and filmmaker Lucia Puenzo has never been one to shy away from tricky subjects, beginning with the psychological study of a young hermaphrodite in her debut feature XXY. Wakolda benefits from similarly subtle treatment of loaded material, in this case the fictional story of a family in Patagonia who discover they are hosting the infamous Nazi criminal Josef Mengele in their cozy hotel. The doctor’s sinister interest in their 12-year-old daughter is as chilling as any horror film, but Puenzo puts it in the larger context of Argentina’s German community and how it sheltered war criminals, giving it more depth and greater interest for art house audiences. Still the story-telling is a little too pat to deliver the surprise moments that reveal character or sweep audiences up emotionally. The film remains a creepy story with a lot of morbid fascination, set off by the captivating young Florencia Bado in her first screen role.
Tales of Nazis hiding out in South America have fuelled several successful films like The Boys from Brazil, which featured Gregory Peck as Dr. Mengele. This story, adapted from Puenzo’s own novel, begins on a wind-swept beach in 1960 where a stranger watches little girls at play. It’s Helmut Gregor (Spanish actor Alex Brendemuhl, almost unrecognizable behind his mustache), who calls the pretty little Lilith (Bado) “a perfect specimen” and draws her in his sketchbook.
Making friends with her family, he follows them to Bariloche, a remote town full of Swiss-style chalets and blond German speakers. He eventually moves into the spacious hotel run by Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and Enzo (Diego Peretti). On the lake outside, hydroplanes land and discharge mysterious passengers, while Gregor opens a lab in town to conduct “genetic research” on racial purity. Add a German school with photos of alumni standing beside the Nazi flag, and the backdrop becomes even more foreboding.
The good doctor is particularly interested in Lilith, who’s considerably under-sized for her age. After gaining her trust by offering to fix her doll Wakolda, he suggests he give her shots that will make her bones grow. Taunted by her schoolmates, who call her a dwarf, and flattered by his attention, Lilith begs her parents to agree.
The real-life Mengele, who fled responsibility for his experiments on human beings at Auschwitz, is said to have continued his cruel work on pregnant women and children in South America, before dying in Brazil in 1979. Puenzo plays on these historical facts to weave a highly believable tale around his stay in Argentina. Apart from the damage Gregor does to Lilith, he also ingratiates himself with her mother, who is pregnant with twins — one of Mengele’s fixations. Only Enzo, the father, is perceptive enough to see through his charm.
The wide open spaces of Patagonia offer cinematographer Nicolas Puenzo a fantastic backdrop for the story, making the little family seem more vulnerable.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 21, 2013.
Production companies: Historias Cinematograficas in association with Pyramide Productions, Wanda Vision, Hummelfilm
Cast: Florencia Bado, Alex Brendemuhl, Diego Peretti, Alan Daicz, Natalia Oreiro, Elena Roger, Guillermo Pfening, Ana Pauls
Director: Lucia Puenzo
Screenwriter: Lucia Puenzo based on her novel
Producer: Lucia Puenzo
Co-producers: Fabienne Vonier, Stephane Parthenay, Jose Maria Morales, Miguel Morales,Gudny Hummelvoll, Stan Jakubowicz, Luis Puenzo
Director of photography: Nicolas Puenzo
Production designer: Marcelo Chaves
Costumes: Nora Lia Alaluf
Editor: Hugo Primero
Music: Andres Goldstein, Daniel Tarrab, Laura Zisman
Sales Agent: Pyramide International