Although the horrors of the Holocaust are never depicted in two movies currently showing in New York, their reverberations are all the more chilling for the spectral presence that haunts both works. On the surface Ida and The German Doctor have little in common except that they spring from the aftermath of the destruction of Europe’s Jews and take place in the early ’60s. Ida is a mystery of sorts, tethered to a road journey in a bleak postwar Poland. By contrast, The German Doctor is a thriller that becomes a horror story amid the breathtaking beauty of the Andes foothills.
In fact, they are linked by a taut common thread: innocence encountering the face of evil. In Ida, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a devout novice about to take her vows as a nun in the Polish convent where she has spent her life. Obliged to visit the aunt who has never been to see her, Anna learns she is a Jew, Ida Lebenstein, and that her parents were probably killed during the German occupation. Together with her aunt, Wanda—a hardened Communist Party apparatchik fallen into a self-lacerating life of men and alcohol—Anna / Ida sets off on a quest to learn her parents’ fate. She will unearth more than their remains in a quest that becomes a journey of baleful discovery and painful self-discovery.
Lilith (Florencia Bado), the protagonist of The German Doctor, is a 12-year-old girl on the cusp of pubescence who appears to live an idyllic existence in an Alpine-style hotel renovated by her parents in Bariloche, Argentina. Although sprightly, Lilith is unusually small for her age, and thereby the butt of ridicule from her classmates. But this is no ordinary school. Rather, it is an academy indoctrinating the children of a local German colony, an outpost of unreconstructed Nazis serving as a haven for escaped war criminals. Enter the title character, who takes an unusual interest in Lilith’s growth with special hormone injections that he dispenses through her vulnerable mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro) behind the back of her father, Enzo (Diego Peretti), a decent man who catches the whiff of brimstone. Herr Doktor, of course, is the notorious Josef Mengele of Auschwitz, on the run from justice. After he insinuates himself into the lives of Lilith’s family as a house guest, his seeming benevolence devolves into a vortex of menace.
Both movies have a fairy tale quality to them, or rather the nightmare aspects of a children’s story. Mengele (Alex Brendemuhl), who meets Lilith’s family at a desolate gas station in Patagonia on their way to refurbish their inn, appears at first as an almost magical benefactor, dispensing medical advice to Lilith’s pregnant mother, offering a cure for the girl’s diminutive size as well as a lucrative business proposition to her father, transforming his hobby of crafting mechanical dolls into a thriving enterprise.
Ida also uses the conventions of a dark fairy tale: discovering one’s true identity, negotiating a hostile kingdom, overcoming the snares of the wicked. The denouement itself appropriates the theme of the huntsman who spares the child he is obliged to kill. Anna / Ida traverses a realm over which a spell has been cast. The landscape has been bleached of existence. It is a vast, vacant space, emptied of life, of hope and, implicitly, of its Jews. The silence is palpable. The convent that Anna leaves as she embarks for the city and her aunt could just as well be Kafka’s castle. The road leading out and the view from the bus evokes a no-man’s land of nothingness, a vale that’s been cleansed in acid.
Anna’s aunt Wanda, (Agata Kulesza) embittered by her travails during the war, has served the Communist regime as a hanging judge, taking grim solace in meting out justice to her former persecutors. But the pleasures of vengeance and hedonism prove a dead end for Wanda. However, touched by the simple faith and purity of Ida, who bears a spiritual resemblance to her mother, Wanda agrees to take the young woman on a journey to the rural village where the Lebensteins lived.
Thus begins an odyssey though a sterile expanse, with Wanda serving as a caustic Virgil to Ida’s Dante as they descend into a netherworld not only shriven of its Jews, but in denial that they ever existed. The roads are forlorn, the landscape barren, the forests menacing. The family now living in the ramshackle house that Ida’s parents had owned deny that Jews ever lived there. Undeterred, Wanda and Ida press on along a road of hostility and dissimulation that will lead to the harrowing end of their quest.
Each scene in this riveting film is a postcard from hell. In dialogue as sparse as the countryside, the director, Pawel Pawlikowski, reminds us of the paradox that some of the very Poles who saved Jews may also have been their murderers. And what came after—pogroms such as the postwar massacre in Kielce—was prompted as much by fear of returning property to the survivors as inherent Jew hatred. It is this mindless atrocity, driven by both avarice and animosity, that is at play in the film. The irony that Anna must come to terms with is the realization that the message of the loving Jesus she embraces has been distorted by church ideologues to lay the groundwork for the killing fields. Anna’s veil of innocence has been lifted, leading to a crisis of faith. But her decision will now be an informed one.
There is no such complexity about The German Doctor. Lilith and her family are in the hands of radical evil. Mengele has neither doubts about his hideous purpose or scruples about his heinous past. His only regret is that defeat forced him to flee in the midst of his labors. But he is determined that his work should continue. What is so compelling about this film is director Lucia Puenzo’s ability to evoke the horrors of the death camps through suggestion, turning the mundane into the ominous.
In measuring Lilith, ostensibly for the purposes of growth, Mengele utilizes the cranial devices used by the Nazis in their pseudoscience of phrenology to distinguish undermenschen from Aryans. The anatomical sketches in his notebooks evoke the human beings upon whom he performed his grisly experiments, and indeed, Lilith’s family serves as nothing more than specimens for his own lab work. Most frightening are the mechanical dolls whose production Mengele fosters. With their torn limbs, disembodied parts and vacant faces they evoke the dead of the Nazi genocide and the special horrors that Mengele inflicted on his victims. The ovens in which the porcelain figures are baked invoke their own meaning, as do the hair added to the dolls, applied by women eerily reminiscent of the Jewish slave laborers in SS factories. But even this is surpassed when Eva delivers two infants, affording Mengele the opportunity to resume his horrendous research on twins at Auschwitz.
Yet the real moral horror is that Mengele is not alone, but rather venerated by the German colony at Bariloche, who go to great lengths to protect him from his Israeli pursuers. Their vista of the snow-capped Andes suggests the Bavarian alps and the view from Berchtesgaden. The Fuhrer may have fallen but his ideology persists in this redoubt of Nazism, untroubled by a sympathetic Argentine regime. Probably the most troubling thing about these two movies is that the animosity and denial that become characters themselves are still with us after 50 years.
Jack Schwartz oversaw Newsday’s book pages and was an editor at several New York newspapers.