The German Doctor and The Railway Man -- Film Reviews
Both these films are are true stories. Both deal with lesser-known aspects of the Second World War. Both feature epic sadism against innocents.
In The German Doctor -- called Wakolda in Europe -- an unwitting Argentinian family of hoteliers takes in a boarder, slowly becoming aware that the man is no mere medical practitioner. The doctor is a handsome and laconic man, evidently a WWII-era era, possibly a Nazi physician (Alex Brendemühl) now in Bariloche, Argentina, after having successfully disappeared for well over a decade in Buenos Aires. It is 1960.
On the barren, featureless road to Barriloche, he meets an Argentinian family, becoming fascinated with their daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado), a one-time preemie who is consequently smaller than her peers. Doctor ‘Helmut Gregor,’ becomes a guest of the family's renovated lodging house. With mother Eva’s permission (Natalia Oreiro) and behind suspicious father Enzo's (Diego Peretti) back, the imperious doctor starts to treat the 12-year-old with unheard-of growth hormone to get her to grow to ‘normal’ size.
Lilith (the name has outsize resonance for the Biblically conscious, as she was the “second woman” who supposedly lured Adam from Eve to his sinful MacIntosh experimentation) is delighted by the “help” she is getting from the formidable doctor. She can now begin to hold her own amongst the feral teens who deride her small stature and refuse to let her compete on an even plane with them.
The horror of who and what Dr. Gregor really is dawns gradually on the family members as it becomes clear to the viewer. The story becomes a chilling psychological suspenser that features no tricks or special effects, but an icy recognition of what was happening for decades under our noses in Argentina, (elsewhere in South America many nations delightedly took in Axis murderers, but few with the alacrity and open-armed hugs of the Argentinian powers-that-were). The film provides an unusual perspective, since South America does not immediately spring to mind as the venue for increasing malfeasance, secrecy, dread, and horror.
The principals in the film, directed by the deft and talented Lucia Puenzo, are genuine and affecting, and the film makes excellent use of real WWII grainy footage, authentic notebooks, and nefarious underground clots of brutal schemers from verminous Nazi nests. (We use the gentlest, sweetest vocabulary fitting for the occasion.) There is also a subplot love story, but the audience white-knuckles it until the denouement. Not a frou-frou film, but well-worth a visit.
The second film, The Railway Man, also a true story, is harrowing in its unsparing regard of the agonies endured by British military POWs during the war. It incidentally limns the realities of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which we have now fully recognized as a legitimate affliction necessitating serious treatment and handling; it stems from exposure to war and its adjuvant stressors. During and after the war, the symptom menu was shaggily classified as “shock,” but few commanding officers understood the depth of disturbance men suffered under constant attack and tension.
Directed with black and white-style sensibility by Jonathan Teplitzky, the historical storyline (from Eric Lomax’s wife’s memoir) is the recounting, via flashback and –forward, the story of POW Lomax, former British Army officer, tormented along with dozens of his companion British officers and enlisted men at a Japanese labor camp in the Southeast Asian theatre to work on the infamous Thai/Burma railway. This got less newsprint attention than the Big Sites during World War II, and the ballyhooed Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Alec Guinness/William Holden stunner. This film offers an exceptional score and impressive cinematography and direction, almost completely shot in Bariloche's exteriors.
With the Geneva conventions coolly ignored by the kill-culted Japanese, Lomax and his fellows are forced to build an impossible railway in the unimaginably fetid jungle oven of the Burma/Thailand hell. Non-officers are, we see, treated even more cruelly than the British officers were. Is it ‘fair’ to bring up the inhumanity of the kill-crazed Japanese now, especially at the same time as Holocaust commemorations are thick upon the country? Yes. We must witness. We must know.
(Not coincidentally, considering this is Holocaust Memorial Week, as the guest of a longtime friend, this week I attended a remarkable -- if temperature challenged -- commemoration of how the first Filipino president, Manuel L. Quezon, saved more than 1,300 Jews, as many as Schindler. Many young Filipinos, some hundreds of Jews, several rabbis, two mayors, Christians, and one Quaker minister attended this ceremony, first at the new green swath of a powerful public park Holocaust monument, then later at the nearby Beth Israel Synagogue, in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Quezon’s notes and documents surprisingly inform the interested that the Filipino leader, a Christian, offered to shelter a million escaping Jews in the Philippines, an offer that the State Department and the sitting ‘beloved’ U.S. president, FDR, refused Quezon’s remarkable offer, on the logic that they did not want to “encourage” a “troublesome new group” (Jews? A troublesome new group?) that might challenge FDR’s decision on retaining or ceding the Philippines.
Depend on the U.S. State Department to come out on the wrong side of any issue concerning Jews or Israel. Still, the magnanimous Quezon donated 7.5 acres of his own land to build a group dormitory home and training center, and provided agri work for several hundred German and Austrian Jewish escapees in an early model of a kibbutz.
Sidebar: Ironically, the Japanese left untouched any German or Austrian Jews with passports indicating they were/had been German citizens. The Japanese, allied with Germany, left any “German” and “Austrian” alone, not caring if they were Jews or no, so long as they were bearing passports from their colleagues in the Axis.)
In 1980, Lomax, now married to Kidman, is poor at communicating or being much of a husband on basic levels. He lives sparely, monastically, hiding his personal reactions even from his loving wife. Later, Lomax discovers that the near-inhuman Japanese camp overmaster responsible for much of his torture is still alive, even functioning in an obscenely touristic capacity, daily whitewashing his country’s -- and his own -- inhumanity.
Lomax has suffered decades of searing nightmares; he now must confront his tormentor. Though much of the film is accurate, the director misses what most of Hollywood deliberately omits: Eric's deep Christian faith helped him through the nightmare and perhaps lead to the surprising ‘solution’ to his lifelong torment. He apparently carried his Bible until it was threadbare; you don’t see that onscreen.
The leitmotif of the film may be the hellish Walpurgisnachts of monstrous deprivation and torture, but the true subject matter is PTSD. Soldiers breaking down with no obvious broken limbs or injuries were told, routinely, “Snap out of it,” famously verbalized by Gen. George S. Patton -- given dragon ferocity as performed by George C. Scott. We know that phrase in fact exacerbated the problem, and now appears shockingly cold. The men in the film, focusing on the story of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth, in another strong portrayal) as his younger and older self, illustrate what many millions underwent, yet stayed utterly silent afterward, internally torn and bloodied, but betraying no sign to their nearest kin.
Nicole Kidman, in an underplayed or underwritten supportive wife’s role, as Patti, wants to understand what is driving her railroad-obsessed husband, but does not glean much from direct questioning of her troubled husband. Jeremy Irvine as the young Eric acquits himself well. Rugged Stellan Skarsgård, a fellow former-officer who acts as Lomax’s conscience and sounding board, is empathy writ perfect as he embodies a fellow surviving vet also torn by his friend's immeasurable pain. No explanation for why the younger Stellan speaks with a pronounced British accent, while as an older man he now has a Swedish cant to his diphthongs. Not a big deal, overall.
Indeed, honor and valor stitch the film in the British officers’ exemplary resistance, consummate decency to others and humanity. Not so the Japanese. But Hiroyuki Sanada as torturer and translator Nagase plays Lomax's nemesis as an adult with exemplary nuanced emotion — shame, fear, pride, grief, humiliation, fear.
And lest one is prone to swallow the silly bromide of “war is tragedy,” we see that war is, more often, an extrusion of endless malice. What was done to the prisoners of the Japanese was no tragedy: The acts they performed on these men were crimes deserving of life sentences -- or hanging.
The British officers in the sweltering Burmese/Thai jungles, were forced to build a railway under unimaginably harsh conditions under the cruel command of the Japanese. While the esprit de corps among the officers and enlisted men worked to near-death by the Japanese kept many alive, barely, it is instructive to see how Geneva conventions were ignored and derided by the Rising Sun as well as the monsters of the Third Reich.
The story is genuine, but one still finds the resolution of this life spent in screaming silence, told in flashbacks but brought up to modern day, unsettling, even unfair. Lomax’s solution to his torturous time in those hellish conditions is not one we would have chosen. We must not be so magnanimous as Lomax was, in fact we would lay odds on that, but others screening the film agreed with us.
And according to the newly-edited book of this life, Eric Lomax did not want to see the finished film; he died before it was released. If he had seen it, he might have been frosted that the film omitted the salient of what gave him the strength to survive the years of torment and malignant treatment.
These two films present sustained, gripping, historically commanding narratives that easily beat the general entertainment fare like The Other Woman or similar fluff. They feel like drama that provides context, deeper understanding and greater respect for “The Greatest Generation.” As Tom Brokaw fashioned the generation that fought -- and too often died -- to keep the West free from soulless German eliminationism and Japanese regnant narcissism.