Belonging Is Uncanny: Wakolda, or The German Doctor
by Manya Steinkoler, PhD, and Jessica Datema, PhD
The authors critique the notion of imaginary belonging and underline its relation to the Uncanny through a close reading of Lucia Puenzo’s novel Wakolda and viewing the film made from the novel, The German Doctor. Issues of femininity, the mother-daughter bond, and the paternal function as differentiated from ideals of power and ideology, are developed with reference to both the novel and film.
Wakolda, or The German Doctor, both as a novel (2011) and a film (2013), serves as a critique of the imaginary: of ideals and ideology, and most importantly, of the fantasy of belonging. It demonstrates the unheimlich confrontation between a neurotic wish for phallic being with a psychotic certitude, incarnated here as the Nazi imaginary. That such certitude had cultural power as legitimate, as an officially sanctioned weltanschauung, was already shown to be waning at the historical moment at which the novel is situated. The story takes place after the war – after this fantasy of belonging or of “taking one’s proper, fated place” was exposed to the world with all the unprecedented criminal horror it authorized. It is not simply the souls and the minds of people that were implicated by this totalizing ideology, but the Real of the body, which, experimented upon and supposedly “bettered,” was reduced to real matter – matter to be changed, “ameliorated,” and even discarded.
Directed by Lucia Puenzo, the film is adapted from her own semi-fictional 2011 novel about Josef Mengele's encounter with a family in post-war Argentina. After ingratiating himself with the family’s adolescent daughter Lilith, Mengele also begins experimenting on the mother, Eva, who is pregnant with twins. Even though Lilith’s father, Enzo, expressly forbids Mengele's experiments, the mother and daughter participate in secret and we are shown how the paternal function is rendered powerless as the neurotic wish meets up with a psychotic answer. The film poignantly underscores the fragility of paternal doubt when confronted with the certainty of the doctor’s Real response, a failure implicated in the rise of fascist ideology itself. The wish is rendered even more present in the young protagonist’s life by way of maternal demand from which she is barely separated. Who would possibly say no, after all, to finally and really belonging?
The historical setting of the film allows us to see our current ideological challenges. The persistence of the vitality of Nazi fallacious “science” after the war serves to illuminate our contemporary moment in which subjectivity is jettisoned in favor of the satisfactions of an ideology that supports and sustains narcissism. Today, we are constantly enjoined to belong to an imaginary set of standards and demands and to sacrifice our better judgment. Set in Argentina after the war, “home” to the fled Nazis, we become all the more acutely aware of the uncanny nature of the drive to belong in this Nazi diaspora. In the story, the Nazi push-to-perfection confronts the wishes of a 12-year-old girl, on the brink of becoming a woman. The encounter betrays our own secret wishes in our post-capitalist moment wherein femininity is ensnared at the imaginary and real level to support phallic hegemonic ideology. With technology, the Real female body can be used nowadays in ways heretofore unthinkable. In this regard, the significance of the main protagonists’ names, Eva and Lilith, with their reference to Genesis, emphasizes that what is at stake is a lost paradise – a place where we (not just Nazis – but all of humanity) are presumed to have once “belonged.” To find one’s proper place, then, is the promise of paradise. The name Lilith, and her mother’s name, Eva, call attention to the difference between the maternal and the feminine, further underscoring this original “Edenic” loss. According to Lacan, the woman is “not-all” as distinct from the mother who, insofar as she is a mother, is always in a fundamentally phallic position. Lilith was not an actual biblical figure but one presumed to have existed by apocryphal rabbinic interpretation, according to which she was the first “woman.” Supposedly ousted from God’s original creation, scratched for Eve, Lilith is invented to explain the double creation of woman in the two Genesis stories. In the first story, she is not named; woman is simply mentioned as such. Lilith is thus retroactively imagined as the scrapped woman, as though God had made a mistake when creating woman and had to do it over again to get it right. Lilith, therefore, does “not exist,” she never “existed,” to parody Lacan’s thesis about Woman; her name in Hebrew comes from the word “night.”
Our Lilith, the protagonist of the film/novel The German Doctor/Wakolda, is 12 years old and concerned, as is her mother, by the fact that she is the shortest girl in her class. A foreign, handsome stranger, a doctor, will promise her not only growth, but great height, one he tells her she was destined for. Such a promise of narcissistic phallic restoration is comparable with those proffered in our contemporary world to women by industry and medicine, and not only by surgical enhancement, but nowadays by genetically producing a more “desirable” outcome. In this sense, Lilith is a woman precisely insofar as she has “never existed” and “falls short” of the imaginary standard of what “woman” is supposed to be.
The Mysterious Stranger
The film opens with the family traveling to Eva’s first home in the heart of Patagonia following the end of the Second World War. Little do they suspect that this journey threatens a real “return” that concerns not simply an imaginary wish, but an encounter with a doctor, escaped from Auschwitz and living under a false name, who will promise that such a “return” to the German language as well as to idealized physical perfection is possible. This mysterious stranger posing as a bookish veterinarian is full of secrets. He was the one who ran a famous medical laboratory not long before and was known as “God” in Auschwitz and Birkenau (Lifton 1986, p. 353), who, in the name of bettering the race for the good of the Reich, had absolute power over the life and death of his subjects. He was the one whose “passion for research made him totally blind to the misery of the camp” (p. 356), and whose “commitment to the principle of murder-selection was inexorable” (p. 343). In short, he was one for whom the return to paradise was no dream.
The film and the novel are called Wakolda, named after Lilith’s childhood doll. The film was renamed The German Doctor for American audiences, playing on America’s fear and hate of Nazis, hoping to boost ticket sales. The altered film title, alluding to Mengele without naming him, only underscores what Lifton, in his book The Nazi Doctors, claims about the infamous “monster,” namely that “No war criminal has evoked so much fantasy and fiction” (p. 338). Not “naming” the doctor only gives him more imaginary power by way of suggestion and produces anxiety: Is he the doctor? Our own excited and prurient curiosity should give us pause as we wonder what precisely we are trying to discover via naming him.
Wakolda means “Mapuche” or “Mapuche doll” in Spanish. Not a name that evokes drama or intrigue for the North American audience – less market-friendly. The Mapuche were a group of indigenous Indians inhabiting southwestern Argentina, including parts of present-day Patagonia, an area devastated by Spanish conquistadors years ago and subsequently again by colonization. The doll is described in the novel as having “long black hair, down to her knees. Her face, hands and feet were carved from wood, and she had gigantic black eyes. Her nose was straight and her lips were thick and she had a swollen belly and wore a handwoven tunic” (Puenzo 2011, p. 56). This doll is a “native,” a non-ideal doll, her thick lips and swollen belly exaggerating her reproductive traits like the ancient Stone Age Venus figures. The doll used in the film, however, is not a Mapuche, but a fair blonde doll with blue eyes, like the film’s blonde protagonist, Lilith. The difference in title and in the figure of the doll between the film and the book is worth considering. The film – with a more global mass market appeal in mind – had to make the doll blonde; the Mapuche doll could not be loved or as easily identified with by a filmgoing audience for whom loving a doll is impossible unless it is a blonde and blue-eyed one, a girl, rather than a sexualized dark-skinned woman. Perhaps we might wonder about the role America has in exporting and promoting imaginary ideals of belonging, and the power of “American Girl” (a doll whose sales have even surpassed Barbie globally for the past several years). Girls are more phallic than women because unlike women, they do not lack; they are still phallic for their mothers who are intimately invested in them and they, in turn, in their mothers’ investment. While not twins, this mother-daughter passion is nevertheless another mirror that the German doctor seeks to restore to them by way of his “cure.”
The story circulates around the exchange of this doll between the doctor and Lilith, the film’s narrator. Her narrative voice becomes her response to “being the doll” as an assumed feminine destiny – although we could think of the fate differently in the film and the novel. In the novel, the sexualized, native Wakolda doll is Lilith’s love object, one that differs from her but to which she is attached. She has to separate herself from the doctor and his aims in order to care for that doll as lost. In the film, however, it is the doll as the idealized narcissistic object that she must separate from; in either case, it is Lilith who must learn to doubt her own wish; this is achieved with the help of the school librarian and photographer/archivist, Nora Eldoc. Eventually, by way of her narrative, Lilith subjectifies an encounter with a traumatic plenitude, wherein a neurotic wish and a maternal demand were co-opted by a psychotic “who knows.” Her art, namely the novel and the film, is to be distinguished from the imaginary perfection promised by the doll and the restoration of the mirror relation between mother and daughter. The doctor promises an acephalic infinity, depicted in the film as the mass, factory-produced doll he offers to finance. Lilith’s beloved doll was handmade by her father Enzo, an artisan who makes dolls in his spare time, and who, importantly, unlike Eva and Lilith, does not speak German. At first glance, the German doctor is “superior” to the artisan father; he is more handsome, more elegant, more worldly – and he is wealthy. He can improve the doll by making it in great quantities, and as an all-powerful doctor, he can even improve on the father’s creations – his daughter and his twins – correcting human beings’ “defects.” The ethics of the film concern the giving up of such imaginary quests – a lesson for our time. Instead of achieving Mengele’s promised end – either in terms of Lilith’s hoped-for growth spurt, or of the establishment of a booming doll manufacturing company – Lilith tells her story. She leaves a testimony of her encounter at the age of 12 with “an omnipotent rescuer and concerned physician” (Lifton 1986, p. 347), one wholly dedicated to the “noble goal” of “advancing the search to unlock the secret of multiplying the race of superior beings destined to rule” (Lifton 1986, p. 359). To leave a testimony is the only way to grow up, and it does not concern her size.
When Mengele proposed the mass production of dolls to Enzo, he offered Enzo a particular role: no longer the maker of each doll individually, he will have the role in the proposed new company of winding up every mass-produced doll’s heart, and placing it inside the doll’s torso himself. A perverse and literally Faustian offer, in exchange for financial gain, Enzo will have to bear the fact that such mass-produced dolls will nonetheless have hearts, and because he was the one who put them there initially, he will become an artist reduced to a mechanical “heart giver” on an assembly line. Enzo will be made to realize what he has done when he goes to the factory and sees the monstrous rows of heads, legs, and torsos all detached. Mengele has turned Enzo’s beloved artistic creation into a mass-produced doll, now a fragmented body – and he has done the same in his treatments of Eva and Lilith. Ultimately, when Enzo realizes his mistake, he tells Lilith she doesn’t need to be tall; there is always someone taller, blonder, or more “perfect.” He shows his daughter how the dream of bodily perfection is a fallacy by relishing the idiosyncrasies of each doll and encourages her to enjoy her own differences and to consider these imperfections as what makes her and all of us unique, like Wakolda.
As the film’s title and as Lilith’s favorite doll, Wakolda suggests that belonging necessarily concerns nostalgia, one that evokes the wishes of childhood. Wakolda, like the indigenous Mapuche Indians who were cast out, shows the impossibility of feeling fully at home or restored after becoming an exile in one’s own homeland, whether as an indigenous people to a land or as a young adolescent to a body. Real changes in the body occur during puberty and one is ousted from one’s own bodily “home.” The German doctor’s promise of belonging would “restore” the place and the body of Lilith and by analogy, that of the Wakolda doll, a symbol of restoring an entire people to its birth place, and even to the idea that a birth place is a proper place. It is the false promise that the Machupe would finally belong to their birthplace – or that anyone would ever finally “belong” as a destiny, anywhere. It is a false promise that Lilith is destined to her phallic place and body, as though the lack that marks the feminine body and the desire it arouses could finally find a phallic solution; as though the puberty that Lilith was beginning to experience as a separation from her mother would be remediated and mother and daughter would be united again in their maternal unheimlich homeland; as though the German people would finally take their rightful destined place in the world order; as though “American Girl” would finally be the best-selling doll in the world...and it is!
Mengele meets Lilith after she drops her doll, and seeing it fall, he picks it up for her. The “dropping of the doll” is an over-determined metaphor: for puberty, for becoming a woman, and for relinquishing the phallic place she held for her mother. A fall, it sets up the drama of the film, namely the relation of the doll to an imaginary ideal that Lilith (literally) falls short of, one that Mengele promises to restore and that Lilith’s mother desires for her – “normalcy” above all. Here, Lilith’s growth into womanhood is only considered as real, not as subjective. Mengele is in the position of restoring the imaginary phallus to the Other, to the “health of the master race,” and his particular madness encounters a wish of mother and daughter: of restoring Lilith as phallic to her mother and to her mother’s dream for her daughter and thus for herself. His power over them is obvious; they are both fascinated by him and intuitively know to keep their relationship with him a secret from the father. The doctor’s slightly erotically-tinged looks at the young Lilith are as intense as they are ambiguous. Lilith, like the many children Mengele experimented upon, thought herself to be loved by him, only to discover that his passion pertained only to his own mad vision, one that had nothing to do with her except as a “scientific” specimen for furthering his “research.” In such a promised paradisaical restoration, the doll would never be lost. In fact, there would have never been a human being to begin with, only raw material for the making of the ideal. Nothing would ever have to fall; nothing need be lost. Do we not sense something of the promises of Botox, plastic surgery, juice fasts and enforced exercise? If paradise is restored, we will never have to age…
For Freud, neurotic anxiety concerns a fall, a Niederkommen, which gives birth to lack. In the film, this lack is literally sutured by the doctor, who sees such work as his great mission. In this sense, he fulfills the promise of the imaginary plenitude that Nazi ideology sought to ensure. Illustrating this fact is a short scene when a dog bites off the doll’s leg and the doctor stitches it back on. While stitching up the doll, the doctor “knew immediately that he had found a solution for his nostalgia. It was of no importance that the baby was porcelain; he could do what he wanted with it without raising anyone’s suspicions. Watching, Lilith held her breath, her attention fixed on the dance of the needle as it wove in and out of the bandage, seeking out the holes made by the teeth and joining the foot to the rest of the body” (Puenzo 2011, p. 48). We are reminded of Hoffmann’s doll and the evil Coppelius who had power over its dismemberment, as he “bleated” over the famous “mechanism of the hands and the feet” (Hoffmann 1982), not to mention the eyes. While Mengele sought the restoration as the “solution” to his “nostalgia,” Lilith sought out the holes, curious about the lack or the maiming itself, rather than its repair. For Mengele, Lilith is a doll to be repaired, making him all the more the “evil twin” of the father of the Freudian uncanny. Mengele was even called “Father” in the camp because of his air of authority (Lifton 1986, p. 338). As the absolute master of the selections on the ramp, he earned himself the title “The Angel of Death.” The ultimate doctor of the Final Solution, known for his “absolute ideological firmness” (Lifton 1986, p. 342), Mengele was always restoring the imaginary plenitude of the Other, suturing all lack in the name of the ideal. The German doctor imagines himself able to cure life itself. It is no wonder then that he was a murderer on such a grand scale, since the only real cure for life is death.
The position of Mengele in the camps was that of a god, one promulgated by his presiding over the selections. He remained enigmatic and mysterious, even to those close to him, further adding to his lofty position. “Nobody ever really understood what he wanted” (Lifton 1986, p. 372) and people spoke of the principle of “unfathomability” (Lifton 1986, p. 374) that surrounded him. He was reputed to have had “no sense for women” despite the fact that many prisoners compared him to a “Hollywood actor” and even to “Rudolph Valentino” (Lifton 1986, p. 343). He was able to seduce while sustaining his position of being unaffected and beyond all desire. One inmate said of him: “He always carried an aura with him of some terrifying threat...I have found it nearly impossible to transmit the edge of this terror” (Lifton 1986, p. 353). One prisoner-doctor put it simply: “He wanted to be God – to create a new race” (Lifton 1986, p. 359). Exiled in Argentina, the novel shows the doctor left to enact his magic in secret. He is already less powerful, having been made so by the judgment of the world.
The distinction between the normal and the pathological is a major theme of the film, underlining their uncanny infection of one another as it becomes impossible to isolate either. What Lifton calls the “healing-killing paradox” that epitomized the overall function of the Nazi regime is just one of the many uncanny paradoxes that we see in the unfolding of the story. Such impossible dualities abound, including some particular to Mengele himself, notably a strange combination of “affection and violence,” as well as a strange mélange of disaffected superiority coupled with an excited passion for “research.” In the “medical” journal he keeps of Lilith’s “progress,” the doctor notes: “First signs of pubescence,” as though he were noting an aberrancy. Mengele aims to “treat Lilith’s dysmorphia,” yet being short is hardly dysmorphia. The actual Mengele would draw a line at 5’-5’2” in the children’s Lager in the camps and tell them they had to reach this height or else they would be selected (Lifton 1986, p. 346). He also was known to have collected dwarfs among his twins and to have “relished” his dwarfs “ecstatically” (Lifton 1986, p. 356). Being short for her age, Lilith inspires the doctor’s passion to “cure,” always imbricated in his equally ardent passion to kill.
We further glean the bizarre nature of the doctor’s medical interventions in his criticism of Eva, when he indicates her pregnancy with twins is in jeopardy and she requires his medical intervention. In the film, he uses the twins against one another, feeding one less than the other, fascinated by the permutations of the mirror relation. The guiding idea behind his “medicine” – or more aptly the Nazi biomedical vision – is an attempt to stabilize the mirror. Mengele studied twins for their genetics and cultivated his passionate personal commitment to bringing science to the Nazi vision (Lifton 1986, p. 340). His passion for sameness was apparent in his notorious fascination and experimentation with heterochromia, a condition where one eye differs in color from the second. He was known to extract and collect eyes from such subjects, enthralled as he was by this anomaly. His well-known obsession with twins, a passion he will remain notorious for in perpetuity, was the logical outcome of Nazi ideology, because if a mirror could finally exist without a stain – without any difference or lack – the promise of imaginary perfection could finally be achieved, and the first alienation that would portend human subjective post-lapsarian existence would be rendered null and void; we would never have to leave the valley of the dolls.
In the film, Mengele constantly creates a series of doubles in an attempt to give meaning to his life’s work, a paean to the “mirror in perpetuity”: with Lilith and her doll, with her father’s dolls, with the twins, and even with the farm animals. Mengele is perpetually doing the same work – trying to construct a stable, faultless mirror. Nazi ideology is a paranoiac; an ideal ego rules and anything less than ideal is duly exterminated. Hence, Lilith and Eva – like all women – are in the position of always being the “not big enough” or “right enough” ego – especially if we consider the feminine in Lacanian terms as that which cannot be signified but concerns a hole in the structure. Mengele sees himself as “doctor” to this imperfect ego, i.e., this nascent feminine, one on the brink of puberty, which is – and only is – himself. Or, we could posit that the passion that fuels this work is a way of staving off the “push to the woman” that one encounters in psychosis and that is why his passion is so totalizing. After meeting Mengele, Lilith narrates: “The first time he met me, he thought I was the perfect specimen.” She is reduced in his eyes to a “specimen,” a scientific experiment, meeting with every girl’s desire to be something Real for someone, although she could not know how. His proposed “cure” for the deficient feminine Real is an imaginary bereft of any symbolic anchor. We see his structure as psychotic in his attempt to fill and sustain the w-hole of the mOther and to avoid the feminine via the phallic nature of the child.
The tropes of doubling, the mirror, the doll, and even the narrator as having her vision intact (like Hoffmann’s Klara) continually mark the disturbing and anxious world of the Hoffmannesque uncanny. In this unstable world, the doll is shared by the neurotic and the psychotic; the difference, however, is that for the neurotic, the object falls; for the psychotic, it must be sustained infinitely because there is no separation, no Niederkommen, no fall possible. In psychosis, the subject and the object are sutured, or as Lacan says, the psychotic “has the object in his pocket.” Mengele’s work aims at imaginary perfection, which can never be fulfilled in its aspirational exceptionality because the very possibility of that exceptionality is destroyed by the fact that the ideal requires the work of infinite doubling. The “final solution” of the perfect mirror has to be repeated infinitely and as such, can never be final or a solution at all.
Mengele compares himself to an artist, stating that he reduces creation to weighing and measuring, a purposeful degradation. When Lilith asks him what he keeps in his journal, he replies: “Poets write about what they see, painters paint; I measure and weigh what interests me.” Mengele avers that he is not making art. But what is he doing? It is a strange kind of knowing – measuring and weighing – as though the other could be summed up, reduced to his size and weight, reduced to his Real materiality with no remainder. The historic Mengele was notorious for weighing and measuring everyone to the very last detail; it was a fact attested to by all the survivors of his medical experiments. This passion was so great, after the war fellow Auschwitz doctors commented that Mengele seemed to have become “lost in the details” to the point where he “detoured from the aims of science.” Weighing and measuring were his greatest enjoyment. Don’t we see in this activity the very aim of Nazi ideology? What else is there to do but reduce a person to her parts and reduce those parts to inventory, to raw material that can be categorized, filed away and stored. The film shows us the uncanny nature of his mind by giving us a peek into his journals, where he is revealed through the monstrous “medical” sketches, which are neither art nor medicine, but a bizarre mix of both, and belong to a logic entirely his own. His “scientific observational sketches” of Eva, Lilith, and the twins are more “real” to him than the actual people he encounters. We could say he never encounters people. Lifton shows how the only people Mengele considered as people were other doctors; this designation was so fixed in his mind that he would take the Jewish doctors off the ramp in Auschwitz and employ them in his laboratory. The only “people” for Mengele were doctors, doubles who allowed him to see himself as a person. These “medical” sketches make us nervous. The nervousness stems from the revelation of his medicine as uncanny, as having nothing to do with science (a shared discourse), but as showing evidence of a personal enjoyment – one that science is precisely supposed to eschew.
After receiving several injection “treatments” from the doctor, who has “masked” himself as a veterinarian, Lilith touches her lower abdomen to discover a rash. When she questions Mengele about the rash, he says it is a “good sign,” and doubles the medicinal dose. Ignoring the real symptoms in her body – not her size – but her reddened abdomen, Mengele pushes forward more excitedly with his project. The real signs of failure only spur him on, rather than providing any kind of limit. In a perverse logic, his failure only further ensures that the ideal is pursued more voraciously. In the romantic tradition of the mad scientist, Mengele never for a second changes his aims. The ideal is not subject to “reality testing”; its frustration only ensures it is held onto more tenaciously. Moreover, the doctor’s series of injections into Lilith’s pelvis and into her mother’s pregnant belly are ways of making holes in them that are not sexual, holes that avoid their own feminine holes. This hole is the way he can sustain the mirror, and imaginarily master the genesis of life itself without sexuality, because sexuality – a use of his own hole – would only confront him with his position as man, as mortal, and as lacking.
The Heim and the Unheim
Many Nazi refugees fled from Allied and Soviet punishment to Patagonia after the war. In the story, the hotel and hospital are set in Bariloche, Argentina, where German immigrants lived in nostalgically constructed 19th-century wooden Alpine houses. Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, and Erich Priebke (The Economist 2013) were just some of the important high-ranking Nazi refugees known to have resided there.
The etymology of the word Patagonia means “big feet.” During his circumnavigation of the globe, Magellan witnessed the inordinately tall people in that region, and called them “patagoni” (Italian). People thought that a mythic race of giants existed in a far off place and this, for Jews and Christians, would recall the unexplained giants, the Nephilim in the Bible (Gen 6:4, Num 13:33, Eze 32:27). “Patagonia,” the land of giants, is ironically the very place where we meet a 12-year-old girl who is too short! The Nazi ideology of Aryan perfection adjuncts the Argentinian myth of giants, which adjuncts the biblical reference. Patagonia is yet another potential paradise of which the Nazis could dream, a place once inhabited by giants; perhaps the Sonnenmenschen will be found there – and if not, they can surely be engineered. The Andes look enough like the Alps after all. The race of giants is always a child’s wish since giants are modeled on our lost powerful parents and denote both an anxiety and marvel at their power, one we would like for our childhood selves as we look upon them with envy and awe.
The German language plays an uncanny role as that which is both “home and stranger” at the same time, allowing the doctor to speak with the mother in secret, leaving the father out of understanding and awareness. Eva had learned German in Bariloche as a girl at her mother’s hotel. On their arrival, Eva pulls out photos of herself at age ten and shows them to her daughter Lilith. These pictures are evidence of Eva’s having grown up as both Argentine and German. Bariloche is where she learned to speak the language and where many students in her school were saluting “Heil Hitler” during the early ‘40s. When Mengele realizes the wife speaks his language, he asks her quietly whether her husband understands them. Enzo overhears, and in an ironic reply, intones that he did not understand at all. Eva and Mengele communicate their secret fertility assistance plans beyond her husband’s purview, i.e., beyond the father. As in Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” again we note the two “fathers”: Enzo, the biological father of the children is also the father-maker of the doll. The “father” of “perfected children” and of the mass-produced dolls, however, is the German doctor.
Mengele convinces Eva that he should treat Lilith with bovine hormone, and shows her charts that depict her daughter as abnormal. Ignoring Enzo’s warnings and concern, she meets with the doctor in secret to give him her consent. A devoted mother, Eva will do anything for her daughter. Even as Enzo reminds his wife that Mengele is not their family doctor, she remains persuaded by Mengele’s promise to abolish Lilith’s “deformity” and fortify her own unborn twins. The partner of the psychotic doctor with “the answer” is the mother’s wish for healthy, and more importantly, “normal” children.
Eva and Enzo have a normal marriage but in a move that undermines their trust, Eva subscribes to Mengele’s promise of paradise and narcissistic tyranny where the psychotic gives back the phallus to the mother. Mengele promises to “abolish the cosmic polarity of the male and female principles.” This promise is related to the metamorphosis of the mother and daughter into “complete life forms,” restoring them literally, including Lilith’s size, in a break from neurotic lack.
The doctor promises Lilith that she will grow to be a Sonnenmenschen, and the dwarf shall become a giant. Fascinated by the drawings she finds in a Nazi book in the hidden library and by her promised place, Lilith believes in Mengele’s treatment. She wants to be the fantasy object for the Ur Vater and we see how this is imbricated in separating from and relating to her phallic place for her mother. Lilith asks the librarian about the meaning of Sonnenmenschen when she can’t find the word in the dictionary – already an important moment because the word is not in a shared vocabulary. This question introduces an important character in the film, the librarian and archivist, Nora Eldoc, who gives Lilith information about Nazi “supermen.” Eldoc was an actual historical person, who in the film is placed on the side of meaning and the symbolic for the girl, allowing her to begin to question the message she has received from this seemingly all-powerful other. We might point out that her family name suggests another kind of doctor, underlining language rather than the real, and assisting attempted capture of Mengele and the later narrative of Lilith.
Mengele is drawn to Patagonia where, while in disguise, he stumbles upon Lilith and her family. They meet at a filling station and the doctor asks to follow them; the road leads the family far from their previous home, and gives rise to an irresistible feminine urge to “return to the Real” (Žižek 2002, p. 19). Thus, the caravan commences upon a path through the desert, which lacks markers and is hard to navigate. Enzo, the father, replies: “Foreigners are always afraid of this route” (Puenzo 2011, p. 24). This remark intimates that Enzo already knows Mengele may not be who he appears to be and one should be cautious. Even though Enzo hesitates, he agrees to continue in convoy and a kind of uncanny chaperoning begins.
Enzo has been shown to be inadequate in his ability to support the family. The trip to the mother’s childhood home is a solution. As developed in The Unconcept, the uncanny is associated with the “notion of Heim, [and thus] with the secret (Geheimnis)” (Masschelein 2011, p. 57). The maternal home and the maternal line include Eva’s deceased mother. We could suppose that the “motherland” is precisely the secret that uncannily reveals itself beneath the dream of the Vaterland as Freud’s “return of the repressed.” Significantly, this maternal home is a hotel, underlining the fact that there is no home or real belonging, even to the mother, except in death. The maternal hotel, both home and not home, is the quintessential uncanny topos. Mengele follows the family on the desert road to find out their secrets, and in following them, he becomes part of their secret. He discovers where they are going and eventually insinuates himself as their first boarder. The stranger appears suspicious, but he offers them money – something he will do continually, a temptation they cannot refuse. Against his better judgment, Enzo is able to be bought. The uninvited guest, the doctor makes the hotel and neighboring environs into an uncanny space for secret experiments as well as for the secrets he keeps with the mother and with the daughter, the least of the secrets that surround his person. Even more eerie, in a further uncanny irony, the hotel resides next to a hospital for the disabled that serves as home both to the handicapped (the very people Nazi doctors euthanized) and the escaped Nazi doctors. Still, the strange doctor is the first one to get a room and his presence in the not-yet-open-for-business hotel threatens the family’s own sense of belonging, especially as he experiments on the mother and daughter in secret. Who do the women owe their allegiance to? The family’s return to the maternal homeland and family hotel provides no hoped-for belonging, but only more anxious encounters.
The Symbolic Intervenes
Nora Eldoc is first introduced to the family in Bariloche at an inaugural school party. As the adult double of Lilith, she functions as an antidote to the doll. She is also importantly a double-agent who works for the Mossad, and as such, places a limit to the overriding theme of the uncanny, because despite being “double,” her affiliation is nevertheless clear. She provides bits of information to Lilith about Mengele and helps her realize the pernicious and threatening nature of his experiments. Eldoc secretly takes photographs of Mengele, eventually reporting his presence there to the Israeli authorities. Eldoc’s character is based on an Israeli spy and survivor of the Holocaust with the same name who worked to extradite Nazis in Argentina until she was eventually killed under nefarious circumstances (Jewish Telegraphic Agency 1961). From the beginning, Mengele always suspects Eldoc of not being “one of us.” He is able to recognize his adversary as a woman who thinks and who knows – a woman who sees and is not blinded by any phallic desire to belong. A woman who is no longer a child or subject to childhood wishes, threatens him. The doctor only has influence on women who long for a wholeness that castration makes impossible. The historic Mengele was famous for his ability to see “through” others. Even an assistant who worked for him and other doctors at Auschwitz, who claimed that it was easy to manipulate the doctors and get them to do what she wanted, said of the particularity of Mengele, “I don’t think for a moment that I could manipulate him, ever ever” (Lifton 1986, p. 344). People intuited that it was impossible to fool him. It was simply more expedient to tell him the truth as often as possible.
Eldoc’s photos create a record of Mengele, who was thought by many to be lost or dead. After she receives a letter alerting her (in code) to Eichmann’s imminent arrest, she carries on photographing Mengele with renewed verve. We see Eldoc’s “project” as the antipode to the doctor’s; they both become more impassioned after they see the real effects of their work, he by the rash on Lilith’s abdomen, she by the knowledge of Eichmann’s capture, which affirms the social value of her work. Eldoc compiles a record to expose Mengele’s identity and whereabouts. Ultimately, this will cost her her life. Mengele attempts to displace such identification as deceitful, by ensuring that it is Eldoc who remains the dangerous threat.
In the film, Mengele twists Eldoc’s arm and threatens her life while the frightened Lilith looks on, unseen by either of them. Lilith’s gaze and resulting skepticism is a turning point in the story – she becomes fearful of the doctor because she identifies with Eldoc and trusts her. Lilith follows Mengele up to his office where he is packing his bags. Mengele senses their “relationship” is about to come to an end and asks Lilith if she would “do anything” for him. For the first time, she answers, “No.” In response, he does not ask why or what’s wrong, but decrees: “You will not forget me.”
It will in fact be hard for the family to “forget” the experiments done to the twins, Eva, or to Lilith as they have a permanent effect on their bodies. Eldoc opens Mengele’s journal to the uncanny sketches of deformity and of the family, including drawings of the twins, Enzo, Eva, and Lilith. The journal reveals how the doctor thrives on manipulating the Real to rid the world of its supposed deformity. Eldoc shows Enzo the journal with drawings of his own head indicating its size and diameter. She shows him the doctor’s drawings of his wife depicted naked and pregnant. The journal reveals that Mengele has been experimenting on the twins, with one baby as a control for the other. Eldoc’s evidence finally convinces Enzo of Mengele’s identity and he realizes in quiet horror what has transpired between Mengele and the women in his family. In this way, Eldoc shows how Mengele doesn’t belong in Patagonia. In terms of the narrative of the film, while Mengele promises an ideal-ego, Eldoc’s symbolic work allows her to become an ego-ideal for Lilith, which ultimately constructs a document (photos, film) that shows Mengele’s true character.
The doctor warns Eva, “hereditary diseases skip a generation” but “you must be careful, it could happen again.” The fomented fear of genetic inheritance effectively replaces mothering as symbolic with mothering as zoomorphic and biological. One is no longer held to any symbolic authority to produce ethical subjects – one’s role is completely reduced to an imaginary vigilance – who needs parents at all?
In the end, the film shows how Mengele’s experiments on Eva’s body – with her complicity – cause real damage. Enzo realizes there is nothing he can do to get Mengele out of his house when, because of a storm, they must ask Mengele to deliver Eva’s twins. Enzo further realizes how Mengele has actually operated inside the bodies of his wife and daughter – a realization of the uncanny breaching of the “heim,” and of his own powerlessness.
Mengele would like to continue working on Eva’s twins but he realizes he must decamp after a nurse informs him that Eichmann has been captured and he is in danger. When the nurse presses him to leave, he replies: “Not yet, my work here is not done!” He believes so much in his calling that he is ready to sacrifice himself for it. At this point, the babies are in plastic bags making an oxygen bubble. Looking apprehensively at her suffering newborns, Eva says that the babies are “best off with him [Mengele],” adding, “I don’t care who he is!” Enzo replies importantly, “I do.” The scene shows the place the newborns have for their mother – one wherein she would sacrifice her symbolic and ethical position – and do anything to keep them alive. This is clearly not Enzo’s position. It cannot be. Lilith’s “No” to the doctor and Enzo’s limit to “doing anything for the children” mark the end of the film – a limit is made.
Lifton opines that “The Auschwitz self was the means by which the Nazi doctor could bring to his killing the mana of a shaman, a priest, a magician” (Lifton 1986, p. 431). The “Patagonia self” was the means by which the Nazi doctor made it even more clear that the self is already other – and that shamans, priests and magicians can only work their magic in fairy tales, travelogues or concentration camps. In Patagonia, the “Nazi biological revolutionary” (Lifton 1986, p. 377) that Mengele “exemplified” is revealed as less magical, less shamanistic, and more simply what he was, criminally insane. If, as one prisoner-doctor testified about the infamous doctor, “He had no problems – not with his conscience, not with anybody, not with anything” (Lifton 1986, p. 344), in exile and in disguise, problems were had with him. Ultimately, the film shows us that there is no self and there is no belonging despite the power of the Nazi imaginary. In the end, the father finally acts on what he sees – and the daughter does the same to grow up, become a woman and to write the novel.
To find one’s proper place, then, entails the loss of paradise and the invention of a limit via art, in this case the creation of a novel and a film. On the one hand, the art object testifies to the fact that “belonging” in some maternal uncanny paradise, sustained by Mengele’s promise of perfection, is fake; only death belongs there. The art object, on the other hand, gives life to a subjective truth and dignity to a traumatic past that was never written into history, bringing death to the side of life where belonging, however much wished for or nostalgically cherished, is never perfect.
Anonymous. Obituary. Erich Priebke: Just following orders. The Economist Oct. 26, 2013. Available at: http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21588337-erich-priebke-unrepentant-organiser-ardeatine-caves-massacre-died-october-11th-aged
Anonymous. Israeli woman killed by Nazis in Argentina: Sought Nazi war criminal. Jewish Telegraphic Service March 22, 1961. Available at: http://www.jta.org/1961/03/22/archive/israeli-woman-killed-by-nazis-in-argentina-sought-nazi-war-criminal
Hoffmann, E.T.A. (1982). The Tales of Hoffmann. New York: Penguin Classics.
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Lifton, R.J. (1986). The Nazi Doctors. New York: Basic Books
Masschelein, A. (2011). The Unconcept. The Freudian Uncanny in Late-Twentieth-Century Theory. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
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Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome To the Desert of the Real. New York: Verso Books.
Address correspondence to:
Manya Steinkoler, PhD
Borough of Manhattan Community College
199 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
Jessica Datema, PhD
Bergen Community College
400 Paramus Road
Paramus NJ 07652
Manya Steinkoler, PhD, is an Associate Professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College and a psychoanalyst. She is co-editor, with Patricia Gherovici, of Lacan on Madness: Madness, yes you can’t (Routledge, 2015) and Lacan on Comedy (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming in 2016). Dr. Steinkoler was the co-organizer, with Dr. Michael Garfinkle, of “Psychoanalysis on Ice,” held in Reykjavik in 2014, and has organized many conferences on psychoanalysis in New York.
Jessica Datema, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Literature at Bergen Community College. Her PhD is in Comparative Literature and she has an MA in Philosophy from SUNY Binghamton (2003). In 2014, Dr. Datema received a creative writing certificate for studies accomplished at the University of Cambridge in the UK. She is a published poet and has written articles on modernism, psychoanalysis and literary theory. Most recently, she co-edited the book Wretched Refuge: Immigrants and Itinerants in the Postmodern. Her current book projects are entitled A Modernist Influenced Hard-Boiled Poetics and a work of creative non-fiction entitled Chapel Hell.