Wakolda (Argentina/France/Spain/Norway 2013)

'The doctor' (Alex Brendemuhl) and Lilith (Florencia Bado)

‘The doctor’ (Àlex Brendemühl) and Lilith (Florencia Bado)

It’s not often that I disagree with Jonathan Romney who wrote a fairly negative review of this film in the Observer, but I enjoyed watching Wakolda and I thought that it worked well on many levels. Lucía Puenzo adapted the film from her own novel. I remember the release of her earlier film XXY (Argentina 2007) but I didn’t get to see it. I’ll certainly look out for it now.

‘Wakolda’ is the name that 12 year-old Lilith has given to an unusual doll given to her by her father who repairs and makes dolls for a living – the doll has a chest cavity and the doll-maker is experimenting with a design for a clockwork heart mechanism. It is 1960 and Lilith’s family is moving south to Patagonia where her mother has inherited a hotel in Baliroche, the capital of the beautiful region of mountains and lakes in Argentina’s first National Park. Baliroche has a significant German community and Lilith’s mother attended the German school there. At a stop on the journey, Lilith is spotted by a German doctor who says he has been hired as a veterinary expert in Baliroche. He is intrigued by Lilith’s small stature for a 12 year-old. He invites himself to join the family’s party and on arrival becomes the hotel’s first new guest. When he realises that Lilith’s mother is pregnant again he becomes even more interested in the family and persuades the mother (her husband is too suspicious) to let him help Lilith with ‘growth hormones’. We soon see that the mysterious doctor is known to the Nazis at the German school and we guess that he is really Josef Mengele.

Wakolda is based on historical records. Mengele lived in Argentina from 1949 up to 1960, continuing the genetics research he started at Auschwitz-Berkenau in 1943-5 using selected inmates as his unwilling experimental subjects (and sending the others to be gassed). He may well have been in Bariloche but his precise whereabouts were unknown during the six months or so around the time when Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped in Argentina by Mossad agents in 1960. The Spanish actor who plays Mengele, Àlex Brendemühl, bears a remarkable resemblance to photographs of Mengele from the 1940s.

I don’t want to give away too much more of the plot but I do want to explore some of Romney’s comments. He refers to the “soft gothic tweeness” of one aspect of the plot – the mechanical doll’s hearts. I see what he means and it’s true that as I watched these scenes something made me think of Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos with its mechanical blood-sucking scarab. I guess from there I connected to Pan’s Labyrinth with the young girl caught up with the Fascists and then The Devil’s Backbone etc. But I see this as not just as a form of Gothic but also something about Latin American stories. In any case the tone and the look of the piece also suggests Hitchcock (the Nazis of Notorious) and Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby). But, as Romney suggests, the film doesn’t really measure up as a thriller, even though it has its exciting moments. Perhaps that’s because much of the action tends to be seen from Lilith’s perspective (see Lucía Puenzo’s comments in the Press Pack) and she is experiencing her own problems about being bullied at school because of stature. The narrative is largely about how the different family members (apart from Lilith’s older brother) are each in some way seduced by ‘The German Doctor’ (the American title of the film). The dolls provide the doctor’s way of getting the suspicious father on side as well as developing another thread about Mengele’s methods and ideas. Audience expectations about a different kind of thriller might also be based on memories of The Boys From Brazil (US 1978) in which Gregory Peck played Mengele.

I don’t think it requires too much of an effort to get past these generic references and to read the film as an Argentinian story about a 12 year-old girl’s experiences. The film is beautifully shot and presented in CinemaScope. The National Park looks incredible and I was reminded of the other Argentinian film in which it features, Mount Bayo (Argentina 2010). The performances are good (especially given the demands of the roles), the film looks good, the music is good and there is an unusual and interesting narrative. What’s not to like?

Intriguingly the trailers for the film are quite different from country to country. Here is the UK trailer from Peccadillo Pictures – quite good, I think:

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