As in many a thriller, the helpful stranger in "The German Doctor" turns out to be a monster. In this case, he's no run-of-the-mill sadist but Josef Mengele, Auschwitz's Angel of Death, and he finds prime subjects for experimentation in an Argentine family.
The drama by Lucía Puenzo, adapting her novel "Wakolda," is a credible imagining of a brief period in Mengele's South American exile. The what-if conceit is intriguing enough not to be undone by increasingly heavy-handed symbolism.
Alex Brendemühl imbues the role of the notorious physician with a creepy rectitude, especially in his obsession with 12-year-old Lilith (exceptional newcomer Florencia Bado). When they first meet, the image of his gloved hand around her doll conveys plenty. Using the name Helmut Gregory, he presents himself as a geneticist to the girl's parents (Natalia Oreiro and Diego Peretti) and installs himself in their lakeside hotel, the better to push his growth-hormone treatments on Lilith — in his eyes "a perfect specimen" except for the pesky matter of her diminutive size. Drawn to what's forbidden, she thrills at the attention.
Set in 1960, with the Mossad in full pursuit of war criminals, the drama employs a character based on a real Israeli spy. She's well played by Elena Roger, but is called upon to alert the audience to Mengele's identity through troubled stares and urgent phone calls. More matter-of-fact, and effectively disturbing, is the culture of collusion among the Patagonian community of German expats.
The setting abounds in beauty, and the storytelling abounds in obvious cues that mute the intended suspense, if not the horror — historical horror and, for a girl coming of age, something far more personal.
"The German Doctor." MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material and brief nudity; in Spanish and German with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At the Landmark, West Los Angeles.