The 2009 Independent Spirit Awards were unveiled yesterday. And while the Academy Awards' more adventurous little brother has been leaning toward higher-profile specialty films in recent years (like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine), the ’09 batch hearkens back to the awards’ early days when ultra-low-budget indies ruled the scene.
It is only through an understanding of the undeniable facts of history that we can even begin to consider the evil that was Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted the most horrific experiments on Jewish subjects during the Holocaust and then was able to elude the ensuing global manhunt for him that lasted decades. But writer-director Lucía Puenzo, in approaching one of the known episodes of his long-term flight from justice, offers a glimpse into the subtle charm (with more than a touch of real menace) of the man, which allowed him to roam the civilized world so freely.
The German Doctor finds Mengele (Àlex Brendemühl) crossing paths with an Argentinian family, and slipping through their defenses by focusing his attention on their young daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado), who develops a crush on the doctor. The family, headed by the suspicious Enzo (Diego Peretti) and his beautiful and quite pregnant wife Eva (Natalia Oreiro), is on its way to takeover the small hotel where Eva was raised.
Mengele, too, is headed to the same location and joins the family’s caravan. He immediately insinuates himself into Lilith’s good graces, speaking to her in conspiratorial fashion, treating her more as an adult than a child, which entices her rebellious nature. His interest in animal genetics piques her curiosity and leads her to ask the doctor for advice about her own physical development, since she, as a premature birth, has failed to grow and mature like her peers. Mengele gently tests, probes and measures her, offering assurances, especially to Lilith’s mother, who is worried about her current pregnancy. (And it turns out that Eva is to birth twins, which certainly intrigues Mengele and his nefarious interests in human genetics.)
All at once, Mengele uses each family member’s concerns to his advantage. Even Enzo, the most distrustful from the start, gets drawn in by Mengele, who invests in Enzo’s handcrafted doll-making enterprise, shifting the exquisite individuality and precise detail of Enzo’s efforts toward a more uniform production line approach incorporating what could have been a degree of heavy-handedness in this display of the Nazi’s master race mentality. Instead, it comes across as an example of chess-like manipulation of human nature in pursuit of an overall goal.
The seductive nature of evil is all the more powerful thanks to Bredemühl’s performance, which casts a strong dark shadow that never simply devolves into mere moustache twirling. His Mengele is all cold calculation, despite the fact that he could be mistaken for having a degree of human care and concern in him. Is he, in fact, truly infatuated with Lilith, or even Eva, for that matter? Enzo reacts out of what could be understood as jealousy for the attention Mengele shows to his wife and daughter, but again, history tells us that Mengele is all business.
This puts a certain perspective on the ability of the Third Reich to sweep a nation and much of Europe up in its fevered march toward domination and genocide. Popular culture representations hint at our curious fascination with such dark figures, but what emerges from those characterizations is a desire to remove any trace of human sensitivity or connection. Evil is best and most recognizable if there’s no way for us to miss its absence of heart and/or soul.
But could that kind of portrayal do justice to men like Mengele and Adolf Eichmann (Nazi officer and a major organizer of the Holocaust), who actively participated in such inhuman practices and escaped capture for so long, walking among us? We long to believe their lives were hellacious, in some way, as they were forced to constantly look over their shoulders while putting on a show or a mask of humanity.
The German Doctor presents a dry, yet far more likely scenario that highlights the indelible stain on all of us. Mengele is all too human, truth be told, eagerly pursuing his aims with an expansive network of support at the ready. He was not some lone predator outside the scope of civilized society, just as the Nazis weren’t a philosophical fringe group in Europe, ripping clumps of hair from their heads while foaming at the mouth; that kind of crazy we could have seen and avoided.
Think of all the evil geniuses we’ve encountered onscreen over the last 20 years. The Hannibal Lectors of film and television. The diabolical Jigsaw from the Saw franchise. Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) from Inglourious Basterds. What have they taught us? Evil ain’t crazy. Just watch (and watch out for) The German Doctor. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: A-
I guess there’s nothing wrong with wishful thinking.
I bought my ticket for the 6:30 p.m. Friday film Official Rejection at Oxford International Film Festival — being held on short notice at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton — 90 minutes early because the volunteer at the information booth warned me it would be one of the better-attended movies. I then watched the clock as a friend and I had dinner nearby, wanting to be sure we got there in time for a good seat.
George Clooney's The Ides of March opens today. Given the avalanche of local press its already received (mostly by the endlessly smitten Enquirer, but also via hordes of social-media geeks), need much more be said about the behind-the-scenes aspects of Clooney's political thriller? (If you answered “yes” to that question, read my interview with Ides of March actor Max Minghella here.)
The burning question now is whether The Ides of March is any good.
It's already November? It seems like it just yesterday that The Hurt Locker took home a surprising (and much deserved) Best Picture win. We're now entering the stretch drive of the fall movie season, a period laden with the big studios' “prestige” films — those they believe have the best chance to grab awards love (thus bigger box-office numbers and the media attention that follows), none more important than that shown by the Academy.
Has there been a movie this year that even comes close to generating the drama and suspense that marked the 2008 presidential campaign?
It's interesting that Cole Smithey would evoke the name of Nicolas Cage when commenting on Liam Neeson's recent fondness for genre pictures that would seem beneath his talents. In his review of Unknown, which opens here at 12:01 a.m. tonight, Smithey says, “How Liam Neeson went from being that rare thespian animal of a leading-man character actor to a full-on action star while still keeping his artistic integrity is a mystery. It's certainly more than Nicolas Cage could do.”
While the latter is hard to argue against — though I'm not giving up hope on Cage just yet (see 2009's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) — I'm not so sure the former is still accurate.
Joaquin Phoenix told an E! reporter at a recent red-carpet Hollywood event, “This will be my last performance as an actor. I’m not doing films anymore … I’m going to play music.
Curious about where Sacha Baron Cohen, the Andy Kaufman-esque comedic genius behind Borat and Bruno, might set his satirical sights next? Wonder no more, as we now know the identity of his next character: climate change skeptic Lord Monckton.
What’s up with this supposedly scary movie called Paranormal Activity?
Paramount Pictures, the film’s distributor, has been sending me e-mail press releases with big, bold-faced titles like “More Than 230,000 Fans “Demand” Paranormal Activity" and "Fans Spur the Film’s Opening in Twenty Additional Cities Across the Country” and “Paranormal Activity Sells Out Midnight Screenings Across the Country.”