While history itself never allowed us the satisfaction of Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death” being brought to justice, that hasn’t stopped the movies from imagining what happened to Joef Mengele during his decades-long sojourn in South America. Now Nazi-friendly Argentina offers their take on this legendarily evil figure with “The German Doctor,” which finds the physician brought into the fold of an unsuspecting family, whose daughter he takes a potentially dangerous shine to. But if you’re expecting the rousing Bavarian strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Boys from Brazil,” or the menacing, slithering darkness of Michael Small’s “Marathon Man,” then composers Andres Goldstein and Daniel Tarrab defy immediately classifiable musical villainy with this intriguing, low-key score.
Who is Daniel Tarrab? Who is he? What is he? Well, he's a very gifted composer who along side his cousin, Andres' Goldstein, have become a composing duo out of Buenos Aires, Argentina which is as famous for Astor Piazolla's brilliant tango music, Gato Barbieri's memorable saxophone and the work of the great film music and jazz composer, Lalo Schifrin. Talent is all over the world and such a lovely place can garner unique talents that just simply transcend the public conciousness and be very popular. Daniel and Andres are perfectionists who literally tag team each other to make the best music possible not only for the films they work on, but for themselves personally which gives them personal satisfaction.
Wakolda, known in English-speaking countries as The German Doctor, is an Argentine film directed by Lucía Puenzo, based on her own novel. Set in 1960, the film stars Àlex Brendemühl as the doctor, scientist and Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, and depicts the time he spent in exile in South America following the end of World War II. Having adopted a new identity, Mengele moves into a Patagonian hotel run by German-speaking Eva and her husband Enzo. Unaware of his identity, Eva and Enzo welcome the hesitant romance that begins to develop between their daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado) and the handsome, charming foreigner; however, having won the family’s trust, Mengele finds himself renewing his interest in the human genetic research that cemented his terrible reputation during the war.
Wakolda (retitled The German Doctor in the US) is the latest film from Argentine writer-director Lucía Puenzo. Little known in the English speaking world, Lucía Penzo is the daughter of Luis Puenzo, celebrated for La historia oficial, which in 1986 won the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign (Language) Film, as well as sweeping nine of the Argentinian Film Critics Association Awards, including Best Film. Lucía co-wrote her father’s best work, La Puta y La Ballena, which I discussed here, and on current evidence, apart from being a fine writer, she has inherited her father’s directorial talents. Evidence of the regard with which she is held in her home country is in the fact that Wakolda was the official Argentine entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2014 Academy Awards. In the end the film was not selected for the Oscar short list.
An acclaimed Argentinian film, Wakolda (known internationally as The German Doctor) tells the true story of an Argentinian family who take in a lodger in 1960 who treats their prematurely-born daughter with growth hormones, not realising his chilling identity – Josef Mengele. The film is written and directed by Lucía Puenzo, who continues her collaboration with the acclaimed composing team Andrés Goldstein & Daniel Tarrab, who received such acclaim in 2004 for La Puta y la Ballena. Their score is surprisingly low key – a chamber orchestra joined frequently by drums and guitars – but reveals quite an emotional punch when inspected more deeply. There’s a charm to the early cues, setting the scene with a portrait of family contentment; then in one brief cue, “Blood and Honour”, the mood shifts – it lasts less than a minute but its impact is incredible – even though the subsequent piece, “Farewell”, features the same melody as heard earlier in the score and a similar arrangement, suddenly it is framed differently – it just has a different feeling because of the context – that’s brilliant dramatic film scoring.
With awards season stepping up a gear today following the announcement of this year’s BAFTA nominations, all eyes (and ears) are on the big contenders. Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and Saving Mr Banks appear to the be leading the way on various lists, with the composers of those films’ scores each up for a BAFTA mask this year (alongside those for The Book Thief and Captain Phillips).
Glancing through the full list of nominees I expected to see The German Doctor in the list of films nominated for ‘Film Not In The English Language’, but it wasn’t there. Also known as Wakolda, the Argentinean drama has been on the festival circuit, seemingly picking up notices wherever it went (including in Cannes), not to mention ten awards at the 2013 Argentinean Academy Awards; and ths; and those notices keep coming with a nomination this week for ‘Best Latin American Film’ at the Goya Awards.
I got an email before Christmas from one half of a composing duo based in Argentina’s Capital, asking if I’d like to hear some of their music. Of course I agreed that it would be my pleasure and I soon recalled the name, realising I already had an album of music by Daniel Tarrab & Andrés Goldstein.
The package arrived, courtesy of FedEx, and I settled down to listen. I was instantly moved by what I heard and immediately emailed Daniel to tell him how much I was enjoying their music. Having heard what I was able to play (some technical issues!) I have to admit I am thirsty for more… what beautiful music they make. Inheritance was the first disc to go in and perhaps the one which has stayed with me since, being so full of beauty, grace and emotion. The film, a documentary by James Moll (The Last Days), follows two women connected to concentration camp Commandant Amon Goethe – one his daughter, the other a Jew who found herself working as his housemaid at Plaszow – as they meet 60 years after the events of the Holocaust and retrace their experiences in Poland. Strong stuff indeed and I’d very much like to see the film now. The music though is a fitting accompaniment, reaching emotional depths with heartfelt clarity and performance. I can’t recommend it enough.
Andrés Goldstein & Daniel Tarrab are a composing team based in Buenos Aires. The last time they were featured on Film Music on the Web was for the Chandos release of their excellent score to the Steven Spielberg produced Some Who Lived documentary in the Broken Silence series of documentaries about the Holocaust. La Puta y la Ballena is a film with less of a profile in the English speaking world, with no date yet set for a UK release. The film is however available on a Spanish Columbia Tristar region 2 DVD.
Not yet having seen the film (whose title translates as The Whale and the Whore) what I can say about it is that is a romantic drama – and judging from the trailer and stills in the CD booklet, a fairly erotic one – set in the past and present, in Argentina and in Spain during that country's Civil War. The impression one gets is of something along the lines of The English Patient and Land and Freedom meeting Malèna and Betty Blue.
La Puta y la Ballena sounds so poetic. There is no question, is simply has to translate as something pleasantly romantic-sounding; "The Bridge and the Ballerina", perhaps; or "The Boat and the Balloon". Well no, in fact it means The Whore and the Whale, which was hugely disappointing to me on a personal level. Such, however, are the trials of life. As for the film - I'd never heard of it. This album's superlative liner notes (by Glen Aitken and Gary Dalkin) make me feel almost like I should go to prison because of this. "Not just the most hauntingly beautiful, intelligent and imaginative film of 2004 - it was, quite simply, the best." Praise indeed. It certainly sounds intriguing - it's all far too complicated for me to sum up in a sentence - but essentially it seems to be.a film about a Madrid-based journalist who traces back through her life, through Patagonia and Buenos Aires. Hopefully I will be able to see it - though I don't suppose for a moment it's readily-available. The best things in life rarely are.
Musical anguish comes in many forms. Presented on this Chandos album are two large-form suites featuring music from documentaries that tackle the devastating effect on human life the Nazi Holocaust had through the experiences of survivors living in Argentina and Uruguay today.
Composers Daniel Tarrab and Andrés Goldstein, both Argentinean-born, help musically-support profoundly upsetting visual material whilst showing great reverence for the difficult subject and in doing so emphasise the important work the Shoah Visual History Foundation does in documenting the past. They thoughtfully combine traditional Klesmer instrumentation with more diverse instrumentation, such as the oft overlooked bandoleon, clearly demonstrating experienced command of the forces involved.