December 13, 2013
Wakolda. The one that got away
Lucía Puenzo treads boldly into Argentina’s post-war connivance
All too rare are the films that actually allow a reviewer to begin with spoilers. Lucía Puenzo’s latest opus, Wakolda, is one of those films: while it doesn’t reveal until close to the end that one of its main characters is none other than Nazi geneticist extraordinaire Josef Mengele, the unstoppable mill of movie marketing lets you in on that not-so-little secret before you find your way to the theatre. Let’s rephrase that: many of you will definitely find your way to the theatre precisely because of that.
However, it’s probably a boon of history-immersed films that some major spoilers lose their spoiling quality: everyone knows what happened to Mengele after the war. If you don’t, you might want to brush up on your knowledge of history or dig deeper into your reasons for seeing this film.
On the other hand, the usual hazard of such films lies with the director’s skill in overcoming the heavy pull of history and building a fictional story around a reality-inspired character. Puenzo just about manages to pull it off quite decently: yes, Mengele is a huge part of Wakolda but, within the anatomy of the story — pun intended — he’s often reduced to a mere prop, allowing the other characters to develop and push the film forward.
Based on Puenzo’s novel of the same title, Wakolda tells the uncomfortable story of Argentina’s post-war connivance, the film’s long, dramatic takes inviting you to share in and ponder. On a desert road in Patagonia in 1960, German veterinarian Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl, who presents an eerie likeness to Mengele) becomes fascinated with pretty little Lilith (stunning newcomer Florencia Bado) and asks her family to let him tag along on the way to Bariloche. Lilith’s mother Eva (superbly played by Natalia Oreiro) has inherited a beautiful inn on the shores of the Nahuel Huapi and they are moving there to reopen the hotel. Eva grew up in Bariloche and speaks Helmut’s language, after graduating from the local German school, so she awkwardly befriends him. Eva’s husband, Enzo (a strong performance by Diego Peretti) doesn’t seem as open and inviting toward their travelling companion, but his mistrust of Helmut doesn’t stop Lilith from seeking the brooding doctor’s company. She lets him repair Wakolda, her porcelain doll with a special ticking mechanism that resembles a beating heart.
Lilith is an underdeveloped child, a 12-year old girl trapped in the body of a nine-year old. Helmut becomes fascinated with the “mysterious harmony” of her imperfection, as Lilith says in a voiceover monologue.
Once in Bariloche, he even leaves his rooms in town and seeks lodgings at Eva and Enzo’s inn. “I feel I have returned home,” Helmut (aka Mengele, please stick to the spoiler) says, gazing wistfully at the tree-covered slopes surrounding the pristine lake. In this family, every member has something to pick Mengele’s interest: Lilith, the perfect little Aryan with a growth problem, gives him the chance to test a hormone treatment to accelerate her development. Eva, the German-speaking paragon of niceness, is pregnant with twins, which spurs Helmut/Mengele into assisting her throughout her pregnancy. Improbable as it may seem, even reluctant and overprotective Enzo has an appealing quality: he makes perfect little porcelain dolls with mechanical hearts. And, obviously, Mengele feels compelled to offer his help in mass producing Wakolda’s flawless sisters.
Puenzo’s film takes the game of fictionalized reality to a more controversial ground, weaving a dark layer around the preponderantly German community in Bariloche. Eva’s old photograph of her school alumni standing beside the Nazi flag, Helmut’s acting middlemen who worship and protect him at all times, the mansion next to Eva and Enzo’s inn, where hydroplanes keep landing with mysterious passengers (whom we later see walking the grounds, their faces completely wrapped in gauze bandages), Helmut’s lab in town, where he supposedly conducts genetic research on the racial improvement of cows: Wakolda’s backdrop is so eerie it almost becomes a separate character in the story. Sorry to say it doesn’t. However, by telling the story mainly from the perspective of Lilith and her family, Puenzo can keep the doctor’s identity undisclosed until the end, producing a sombre feeling of sustained tension.
The director injects little bits of inklings into the family’s unsuspecting ignorance: from the Nazi-hunting news reports on the TV (peaking with Adolf Eichmann’s capture by the Mossad which forces Mengele’s escape) to Aryan myth-related miscellanea and the real-life character of Nora Edloc, a Mossad agent on Mengele’s trail (an outstanding performance by Elena Roger).
Remember that bit about doing your homework? Puenzo won’t do it for you: Wakolda unfolds with little to no explicit references. The family’s ignorance triggers your own, unless you go in prepared. However, previous knowledge of history doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the film’s increasing tension which virtually explodes on the soundtrack as Mengele soars to the crystal blue skies above the Nahuel Huapi in a hydroplane.
A special credit goes to illustrator Andy Riva, who did an astonishing work with Mengele’s notebook, a masterpiece of body drawings, with comments and tables describing the subjects and sketching their imperfections and potential for improvement. Ever-present throughout the film, this notebook seems to enclose a story within a story, not to be told but to be merely glimpsed.
Puenzo’s Wakolda is an alluring account of people and events long gone that leave behind a trail of moral queries and censure. The “what ifs” of a grim past permeate the characters’ circumstances, particularly Lilith’s uncertain monologues and Eva’s heartbroken face as she looks at her twin babies whom the good doctor had experimented on. Should Wakolda have overcome the uncertainty of the characters’ ignorance to delve into the dodgy moral ground beyond, the story within the story would have been a masterpiece.