Review: ‘The German Doctor’ 10.14.14

 

It’s these types of films that I intentionally seek out as they often times have the pedigree to be something better than almost anything I can find in American cinema. Maybe it’s my fascination with WWII era stories. But even moreso, I think a lot of it has to do with the the fact that films of this kind usually depict some sort of protagonist or antagonist, who are faced with  adversities that people in modern day life take for granted. I personally love films of this genre. German films like 2004’s “Downfall”, 2007’s “The Counterfeiters”, and both 2012’s “Hannah Arendt” and “Lore”. All of which center around stories revolving around people plights against injustices brought on by war. I actually didn’t know much about this one going in. Other than I had jotted it down as I do every year when the Cannes Film Festival lineup is announced and I see something that piques my interest because of its genre. What I knew about this was it was billed as a “historical thriller” that takes place during WWII. I had also seen that it had snagged an “Un Certain Regard” nomination at the festival. So just solely based on those two things alone I told myself that at the very least it most likely would wind up being a worthwhile rental.

Based on a true story, the story takes place in Patagonia, Argentina in the year 1960. It involves a young girl, Lilith, and the doctor Josef whose motivations aren’t entirely clear when we meet the two at the start. However, in a voiceover that goes along with the opening credits, we learn that Lilith is “the perfect speciman”. We then come to discover that the doctor is in Argentina for reasons unexplained. He does seem however to have a certain fascination with the young Lilith. So much so that he finagles his way to where he convinces Lilith’s family to allow him to follow them as they head on a family road trip to the motel they own. Towards the end of their trip both he and the family part ways. That’s only until he somehow catches up with them again and manipulates his way yet again to persuade them to rent him a room. The focus of the story then turns to Lilith, who seems to be having a hard time adjusting to her new school because she has some sort of genetic disease that doesn’t allow her to grow like other children her age. Through a series of deceptions involving the doctor helping Lilith’s mother he convinces the family that he can help Lilith grow through a series of experimental tests. None of which the family is too keen on doing, but seeing how miserable Lilith is in school they eventually wind up allowing it. It’s at this point where we start to learn what the doctor’s intentions are and what his true identity is. As we meet someone who thinks they recognize him.

Overall I felt pretty indifferent about this film. A part of me liked a fair amount of elements about it but couldn’t get myself to overlook some of the others. I thought the story, while compelling, unraveled just a bit too slowly for my tastes. And while although I thought the director did a pretty good job at creating a sense of tenseness where I was engaged to the point in that I was waiting for what was going to happen next, it didn’t really catapult itself into the climax that it could have. Plus, once I realized who the doctor really was towards the end, I thought that he could have been played more menacingly and more feared of. The doctor’s character, though threatening, came across as a little bit too subdued and subtle. Which would be effective in certain films just not so much ones of this type. And even despite it being confidently shot with some strong and assured direction it was just barely shy of just being enough for me. What I will say however is that it leaves things at sort of an ambigious ending. Which I thought forced the viewer into thinking about the doctor’s conscience and moral compass. So while it didn’t necessarily work for me as a whole, it did get me to think. Which is one of my 3 criteria with film and why I can give it a worhwhile and passing grade.

Grade: B-

 

Review: ‘Ida’ 9.15.14

 

“Ida” is yet another great example of the crop of European films that explore existential ideas during times of war that are shown through the eyes of young women. This coming from a director out of Poland, Pawil Pawlikowski, and emulating some of the works of the great Polish director Krzysztof Keislowski (1989’s “Dekalog” English Title: “The Decalogue”, 1993-1994’s “Three Colors” Trilogy) whom explored similar themes. I also found myself drawing up comparisons to a great German film I saw just this past year – Cate Shortland’s 2012’s “Lore”. Which followed a young girl in post WWII Germany whose parents flee and she is left to care for her many even younger siblings who are left behind, also while fleeing Allied forces. These are raw, human stories about the determination of strong young women who rise up in times of crisis, and in the process, go on a journey of self discovery throughout the process.

The film centers around the titular character, who we meet at the beginning of the film as a young nun in a convent. We quickly find out that she is an orphan, and the sisters there encourage her to go and seek out a family member who has been writing her before she takes her vows to become a nun. Ida goes and finds her aunt, who is slightly unwelcoming at first but who begins to show her pictures of her parents, allowing Ida a first glimpse into the story of her family. The aunt further explains that she knows of a man who may be alive and might know what happened to her parents. The two of them then embark on a journey, unlocking many secrets along the way. It is during this journey that Ida begins to discover herself, and in turn starts to question her religious faith, sexuality, and what family truly means to her. I would go into more detail about where the plot goes, but I’m afraid I’d be giving away too much.

I thought Pawlikowski did a great job not with just exploring the heady themes he does here, but from a cinematic standpoint, how uses black and white film to really capture the setting. This gives it a more naturalistic look. The icy, cold, wintry landscapes also give the story a more authentic feel. It features a bold performance by the young and obviously very talented actress Agata Trzebuchowska, who’s beauty shines through but who is equally as effective in showing grief, pain, and sadness, especially in her determination to find out the truth. I also liked how music played a key role in almost every scene, and plays an even more pivotal role in Ida’s liberation. My only criticism of the piece is that it’s a bit slow to start, and really the “meat” of the film is entirely in its 2nd act. At a brisk 82 minutes long, I personally felt as if they could have taken the story further. That being said, I thought Pawlikowski did a rather deft job at creating a dense story within such a short running time. If you enjoyed movies like 2008’s “Doubt” or 2012’s “Stories We Tell” I could see you really enjoying something like this. For others looking to just sit back and be entertained, I think they’ll find its pacing to be a tad slow at times, and its themes a bit too deep. That being said, I thought it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Grade: strong B