Thursday, December 05, 2013

Mercy & The German Doctor

Mercy (Gnade) (Matthias Glasner – Germany/Norway) 132 minutes

The German Doctor (Wakolda) (Lucia Puenzo – Argentina/France/Spain/Norway) 93 minutes

A German couple, Maria and Niels (Birgit Minichmayer and Jürgen Vogel) move with their teenage son Markus (Henry Stange) to a new adventure in the far north of Norway, to the Arctic town of Hammerfast, where round-the-clock darkness reigns for two months of the year (though the town is not, despite what the opening credits might say, the world’s northernmost). The move appears to proceed with the sort of dovetailing smoothness only Germans are capable of: Niels takes on a job in the local gas refinery and Maria as a nurse in the hospital’s terminal unit. Markus, like his mother, picks up the language quickly and settles in well at school. Niels even manages to farm a bit on the side, though it involves little more than throwing a bale of hay to his sheep every evening, which suggests a particularly urban conception of husbandry.

Despite the lack of sunlight, it is very much a northern idyll, couched in cosy wooden homes, with breathtaking views from seemingly every window. Niels introduces the first threat to that pleasant state of affairs by embarking on an adulterous relationship with a female colleague. Markus starts joining in the bullying of an unpopular classmate. Maria meanwhile, returning from working a double shift one night (or morning, or afternoon? It’s hard to tell), knocks someone or something over and flees the scene. When it later emerges it was a drunken teenage girl, who then died of exposure and who was a daughter of a man in the same church choir as Maria, the family is faced with a dilemma that could tear them apart.

Glasner and Vogel have previously collaborated on a number of films, most notably the 2006 The Free Will, a terrifying portrait of a recidivist violent rapist, played by Vogel. Mercy has a similarly theological title but it is a much more soothing, conventional Euro art-house film. The film is initially promising but loses its way soon after Maria’s hit-and-run, which, bafflingly, causes little intrigue or outrage in a small remote town. Screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson also seems to be flailing about in the dark with Niels’ affair with the clingy Linda (Ane Dahl Torp), which is purely vehicular and which is at best unconvincing, at worst casually misogynistic. At one time the affair looks like it might land the family in the shit but it is soon resolved in a perfunctory fashion. The relative sobriety we might have expected from the film early on is also dissipated as it moves towards its conclusion, with one particularly mawkish scene mounted during choir practice in the church, replete with diegetic melodramatic chorals. Mercy is a handsome, if unchallenging, film that presses all the obvious buttons but which helps itself to whatever grace it has, rather than gainfully earning it.


Lucia Puenzo's The German Family begins with an Argentine family, setting off across the Pampas in 1961 to travel to the resort hotel in Bariloche they run during the winter season. They encounter a stranger, who asks them if he can accompany them along the perilous route. He, Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl), is German and the mother of the family Eva (Natalia Oreira) is also of German stock and speaks the language. The family’s children, Tomas (Alan Daicz) and Lilith (Florencia Bado), whose adult self narrates, are about to start attending the very same German school in the Andean city that Eva herself went to. Gregor, who is a doctor, is also going that way and has contacts among Bariloche’s German community. He also takes an interest in twelve-year-old Lilith, who suffers from stunted growth and who has the physique of an eight-year-old; the good doctor offers to try new medication on her to accelerate her growth.

The family acquiesce, though father Enzo (Diego Peretti), less enamoured of things German than his wife, is wary. He has good reason to be, as the mild-mannered Doktor Gregor is none other than the notorious Josef Mengele, of the Nazi death camps. This appears to be an open secret among Bariloche’s Germans, who once enthusiastically flew the swastika during the war and now do their best to protect Mengele from prying eyes. Those eyes come in the form of Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger), a pretty young German-speaker who takes on an archivist position at the school but who is in reality a Mossad agent. She tries to get her superiors in Tel Aviv to close in on the fugitive but they are prioritising Eichmann and don’t want to blow the cover for that operation.

Meanwhile, Lilith, who appears to be developing a crush on the kindly doctor, also develops alarming symptoms that may be related to her experimental treatment, which is minutely documented in Gregor’s Leonardo-esque notebooks, the macabre content masked by cursive beauty. Puenzo, who adapted the film from her own novel, is an astute observer of the pains of medical dysfunction and the way families protect their children (an earlier film, XXY, sensitively portrayed a hermaphodite’s passage into puberty). She also adeptly engineers a tense thriller in a very low-key setting and has a striking visual sensibility - Enzo is an artisan dollmaker whom Mengele offers to finance for mass production and a subsequent visit to a doll factory provides a creepy echo, both of Mengele’s anatomical obsessions and the mass carnage of the death camps. The German Doctor is a surprisingly resonant film that might easily have been standard TV-movie fodder. It stands a good chance of getting a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination and would likely be one of the better films in the running.