Lucía Puenzo’s ’60s-set quasi-thriller The German Doctor appears to have been traced from a copy of her 2007 debut, XXY, only with a runty 12-year-old protagonist instead of an intersex teenager. Growth hormones stand in for sex reassignment surgery, a lakeside for the seaside, and dolls take the place of marine life as the movie’s primary source of heavy-handed metaphor.
There’s nothing wrong with working from a template. South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, to cite one contemporary example, has managed to produce great, varied work from a handful of repeated premises. But whereas Hong’s personal fixations serve as jumping-off points, Puenzo’s become constraints. The German Doctor, which the filmmaker adapted from her own novel, is limited by a severely rigid metaphorical framework that requires every action and character to signify either uniformity (bad) or diversity (good).
Considering the movie’s themes and moral absolutes, it should come as no surprise that Nazis are involved. The lakeside town in question is Bariloche, an Alpine-style resort in the Andes, where protagonist Lilith (Florencia Bado) attends a German-language school with Third Reich roots. In place of XXY’s plastic surgeon, there’s the titular physician, Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl), who may or may not be a certain notorious Nazi doctor living under an assumed identity. (In reality, this particular pop-culture bogeyman lived, ran a business, and traveled abroad using his real name.)
Puenzo tries to play Helmut’s identity for suspense, dropping unsubtle hints and periodically cutting to a Mossad agent engaged in what appears to be the least clandestine espionage ever filmed, decoding ciphers in a public telegraph office and taking photos with a microfilm camera while others are around. The movie’s use of widescreen—which recalls David Fincher’s wide-angle, just-below-the-eyeline framing—and cerulean-and-tan color palette give off a chilly vibe. The problem, though, is that Brendemühl’s performance is so immediately nonchalant-serial-killer creepy that the viewer may be more surprised that he doesn’t just murder Lilith’s family within 30 minutes of meeting them. For the suspense to click, Helmut needs to be ingratiating or seductive, but Puenzo’s broad view of the evils of “perfection” requires the character to immediately spout off about genetics at the dinner table and then go about town measuring children’s heads with calipers.
Nestled within the movie’s overtly schematic design are strong performances—namely, newcomer Bado—and a few details about German-Argentinean life which are, frankly, more interesting than the question of Helmut’s past. (Besides, anyone who’s seen the movie’s American trailer or glanced at its IMDB page will already know the answer.) But just as the movie seems to take on a life or rhythm of its own, Puenzo forces it back to an oppressive, capital-T theme. Given her central message is about finding your own identity (unless, of course, you happen to be a fugitive war criminal), it’s ironic.