DIR/WRI: Lucía Puenzo • PRO: Fernando Abadi • DOP: Nicolás Puenzo • ED: Hugo Primero • MUS: Andrés Goldstein • CAST: Àlex Brendemühl, Natalia Oreiro, Diego Peretti
A few things come together in Wakolda. First, there is the striking notion that South American cinema could centre on the narratives of its rather capacious German population. In German cinema, the Turkish-German population are presently emerging from the sidelines to assert their own cinematic narrative. Here, we have the Germans at the centre of an Argentine narrative. It might come to pass that a larger German-Argentine cinema will develop, much in the same way as Turkish-German or, for example, Italian-American. For now, though, we focus on the genesis of the world’s interest in German-Argentine narratives: the history of Nazi war criminals fleeing to South America.
It should be noted that Germans had a history of emigrating to Argentina and Brazil before the war, but, as the cloud of the Holocaust hovers over every German cinematic narrative, this must be the jumping off point for all artistic discussion. This film, at least, is a refreshing take on the subject. Its expansive Argentine landscapes contrast wildly with the contained and measured German doctor Mengele. When his host family’s daughter runs into physical “problems” (she is “too short”), Mengele convinces the family to allow him to experiment on her in order to fix her height.
There has been a lot of talk about the banality of evil in recent cinema, with Austria’s Michael a highlight. But whereas Michael incisively penetrated its villain’s everyday life, demonstrating just how normal he was, this film offers merely a surface glimpse into the proceedings. All of the characters remain largely enigmatic. This is down to a mix of both flimsy characterisation – in the case of the parents of the girl – and a conscious choice to merely observe – in the case of Mengele. The film makes frequent reference to Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer whose trial was covered by Hannah Arendt and whose triviality was responsible for Arendt’s theory of “the banality of evil”.
However, it must be noted that Mengele seems motivated less by a general sense of evil-doing and more by scientific curiosity and misguided attempts to advance science. One of the spookier elements of the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s book Zero Degrees of Empathy is when he explains that Nazi doctors were capable of such horrific acts because they worked through a series of ethical checks; for example, they could justify experimenting on Jewish people because the Jewish people were classified as less than human; and so the doctors could act as if they were experimenting on animals. This meant that they did not have to directly mentally engage with the true nature of their actions. They did not have to think the sentence “I am experimenting on a person.” There are frequent references in Wakolda to dolls, animals, other inhuman bodies. So rather than a walking monster, we have a hugely misguided man. It is similar in ways to the film Close to Evil, which screened at the Galway Film Fleadh this year, in which one of the last remaining SS officers refuses to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened. If she acknowledged it, her internal defence systems would shut down. The cognitive dissonance would be too much.
It is interesting, too, that the film comes along in 2014; at a time when we are obsessed with creating the perfectly optimised self. Not to stretch it too far, but the desire to create a kind of superhuman is definitely something that we can all understand. The quantified self is here. It is that leap from where we are now to more profoundly disturbing experimentation that causes horror. But it is worth trying to understand all of these issues rather than simply reacting in abject horror. There have been enough films about the war that simply say “Evil!” This film does that to an extent, but it is a little more contemplative about our motivations and actions as people. Very interesting and worthwhile.
Wakolda is released on 8th August 2014