A plodding Argentine potboiler that examines the country’s history of harboring Nazis after WWII, “Wakolda” poses the question: What would you do if the dapper German doctor you invited into your home turned out to be Josef Mengele? That premise could be just juicy enough to earn writer-director Lucia Puenzo’s third feature a modest international audience, though she goes about the execution all wrong, leadenly reverse-engineering her plot from a reveal that the vast majority of audiences will know from the get-go. The fact that Puenzo (“XXY”) published “Wakolda” as a novel first could benefit awareness in some markets.
For unsuspecting porcelain doll-maker Enzo (Diego Peretti) and his wife, Eva (Natalia Oreiro), the prospect of inviting a distinguished foreign physician to be the first guest in their new boarding house has its perks. Their underdeveloped 12-year-old daughter, Lilith (remarkable newcomer Florencia Bado, who serves as the film’s too-young-to-understand eyes and ears), is constantly being teased at school for her small size, while Eva is nearing the end of a difficult pregnancy with twins, so it helps to have a medical expert they can call on for help.
The stranger they meet on the road to Bariloche is no ordinary doctor, however, but the Third Reich’s notorious “Angel of Death” and mastermind of Hitler’s genetic experiments to create the master race — a fact more or less revealed in the opening credits, which feature gruesome medical drawings from Mengele’s personal notebook. As horror scenarios go, Puenzo’s setup takes the most heavy-handed approach possible: It’s like telling a Jeffrey Dahmer story from the point of view of his neighbors, who slather themselves in barbecue sauce before inviting him over.
In this contrived household, every family member has something to excite Mengele’s darkest tendencies. A perfect little Aryan in all respects except her size, Lilith offers a chance for him to test hormone treatments that will accelerate her growth. By giving birth to a pair of premature boys, Eva allows the doctor to surreptitiously continue his infamous twin experiments. Meanwhile, her husband’s hobby poses the ultimate metaphor for Mengele’s life goal: Enzo putters away in his workshop, trying to make the perfect-specimen porcelain doll, one with blonde hair and a beating mechanical heart. “Have you ever thought about mass-producing them?” Mengele asks, all but twirling his moustache in the process.
Unlike Bryan Singer’s distasteful “Apt Pupil,” in which a teenage boy became obsessed with the ex-SS officer down the block, “Wakolda” doesn’t exploit the perverse allure of Nazism so much as use it as a shorthand for the ultimate evil (in that respect, the pic feels more akin to Stephen King’s “Needful Things,” in which things go wrong shortly after the arrival of a dark personage). As Mengele surreptitiously continues the work he started back in Germany, he manipulates the various family members, forcing them to betray one another as he dangles too-good-to-be-true shortcuts to their various dreams.
The characters are alarmingly slow on the uptake, which gives the thriller a small measure of tension. After all, why should they suspect their genteel lodger’s true identity — unless they were privy to the ample clues Puenzo provides her audience, including ubiquitous Nazi-hunting news reports on the TV, repeated discoveries of Hitler-philic paraphernalia around the nearby German school, and the excited arrival of a Jewish, Nancy Drew-ish photographer (stunning stage actress Elena Roger).
The story takes place in 1960, nearly two decades before Mengele’s death by drowning in 1979, which suggests that “Wakolda” can’t possibly deliver on the ending audiences want. But then, Puenzo seems more interested in how he was able to evade capture — the implication being that, dastardly human-guinea-pig experiments aside, people thought he was a pretty swell guy.