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Adapting her novel to the screen: A Conversation with Award winning Filmmaker Lucia Puenzo

06 August 2014

Patagonia, 1960. A German physician meets an Argentinean family and follows them on the long desert road to Bariloche where Eva, Enzo and their three children are going to open a lodging house by the Nahuel Huapi lake. This model family reawakens his obsession with purity and perfection, in particular Lilith, a 12 year-old with a body too small for her age. Unaware of his true identity, they welcome him as their guest. Gradually, they are won over by this charismatic man, by his elegant manners, his scientific knowledge and his money — until they discover a deep, dark and unforgiveable secret about him….

From the award-winning director of XXY and THE FISH CHILD, WAKOLDA played to critical acclaim at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and earned accolades world over at film festivals, cementing Lucia Puenzo as a distinctive and prolific voice in South American Cinema…



You write novels and direct films. Why did you choose to adapt one of your own novels, Wakolda, for this film and how did you work on the script?

I first wrote the novel Wakolda. I was interested in the voice of that little girl who became fascinated with a German doctor, whom she slowly discovered the true identity. I wrote the novel for one year and a half.  I was also writing a script of what was going to be my third film, which was not Wakolda. Then I began to realize that the film I wanted to do was Wakolda and not that other film. I began to work on the adaptation, which actually changes a lot from the novel to the script.


What kind of changes?

In the novel, even if it’s not the voice of Mengele, his character sees the world as if it was a very big zoo. Like a laboratory. In the film, the point of view became the one of that girl. It is through her eyes that we see everything: the relationship with this German doctor, the trip to the end of Argentina and the German community in Bariloche, which was very closed and very pro-nazi at that time, even before the war, and how she began to understand where she is and who these people are.


Did you make some researches about the Nazis in South America?

A lot. The stories of Nazis in South America could be a hundred books and a hundred films. So many Nazi generals of all different hierarchies that disappeared in our country, and in several other countries of Latin America… But I was especially interested in their obsession with genetics, with making the perfect race. It is almost a paradox that Mengele, so obsessed with racial purity, should end up in a continent (not only in Argentina, he spent year in Paraguay and in Brazil), where we all have mixed blood.


Do you think that, like Lilith’s mother, part of the Argentinian population might have ignored all about the Nazis crimes?

In 1959, everybody was beginning to know what had happened during the Second World War, but probably not everyone knew about the role of German doctors and what had been going on in the deportation camps. That was something that began to be discovered with the trials a bit later…

The German community of Bariloche was well prepared to receive the Germans who came from abroad and needed very quickly a new passport, a new identity, a new job. There were networks to do that and to make these men evaporate. And of course, there was a lot of Argentinians who were not Germans and who knew more or less who these men were. In the school where the kids go in the film, which was a real and openly nazi school before the war. After the war they began to hide all the references of Nazism. Actually Erich Priebke lived in Bariloche for decades, and was the director that school. When he was discovered and extradited, some citizens of Bariloche said he was “such a nice little old man”. There was a lot of chains of complicity.


How did you introduce fiction in the historical background?

Both the novel and the film work with a combination of real facts of history and some fiction. It is true that Mengele lived in Argentina for 4 or 5 years. He even had his name in the phonebook, he had a pharmaceutical company, he moved around our country with complete impunity. At some point, when Eichmann was captured by the Mossad, Mengele disappeared and reappeared in Paraguay six months later. The film is located in those six months, where his tracks were lost for some time. Some people say he was in Bariloche at some point. The family with whom he lives is part of fiction, though they could have been real.  Nora Eldoc, the Israeli spy, is a true life character based on a woman who was found murdered a few days after Mengele is supposed to have left Bariloche. Some say she was a voluntary of the Mossad. There were hundreds of them in Latin America. Others say she was there for a ski week, and that her death was an accident. But people from the Israeli embassy came to look for her body, took some documentation away and archived the episode.


It is the first time you deal with an historical subject. What were you interested in?

Wakolda is very close to other films and stories I made. It has a lot of points of contact with XXY… You have this girl who sees the world and understands what is going on; The doctor who wants to normalize the body of Alex in XXY has a lot of points in common with Mengele, who tries to make Lilith´s body grow to a standard height. I began to write both the novel and the script with the fascination of what some aspects of medicine is doing even today, in their constant intention to create perfect bodies. Of course, Nazism took this idea to it´s perfect and fanatic extreme: they crossed the line horribly and in a very perverse way. When I began to write Wakolda, I met a lot of historians, but I also interviewed doctors, geneticists and endocrinologists. They kept telling me that the growth treatment Mengele experimented, the growth hormone he used -even completely out of control and in a very perverse way- is the same hormone used today for growth treatments. Ethical issues in many medical treatments is still today a delicate subject.



Would you say that Lilith’s father, who aims at reproducing the mechanism of the human body with his dolls, and Mengele, who is observing, taking notes and making experiments on the family, display two different aspects of science?

When I began to write the novel, the only thing I knew was that the heart of the novel and then of the film would be the theme of “mixed” race or “pure” race. In the novel, there are two dolls. The Mapuche doll called Wakolda, almost an alter ego of Lilith: mixed race, imperfect, magnetic and enchanted. Mapuches -our Indians from Patagonia- were wise people, with many esoteric beliefs. The other doll is Herlitzka, the Aryan doll that Mengele intends to create in series: a perfect doll. What Lilith’s father does are very small sized, imperfect dolls. In 1960 in Argentina, it is the beginning of industrialization, the jump from handcrafted work to factories. Before that, children sent their broken toys to what was known as Doll hospitals… Broken toys were not thrown away but fixed, or cured. That´s what Lilith´s father does: he fixes broken dolls and makes new handcrafted ones.

In the film Mengele´s diaries also became important. They´re based on something I read in many history books: he used to travel with them and to have, even in the camps, many notebooks with drawings and precise (obsessive) information of everything he did. We even tracked some of these notebooks. The drawings were so childish that it was impossible to use, it was so dense. We created new notebooks for the film and they became very important. With this we found a cinematographic way of including how he saw the world: like a zoo, or a laboratory. This is another point of contact with XXY, in which the girl used to make drawings of her body. Mengele saw the world through the details of bodies, and what he pretended to do with them.


The film also shows how Lilith leaves childhood to become a young woman…

Lilith is in a very particular moment, leaving childhood and entering puberty. She’s beginning to realize what she can provoke in a man, both in an adult and in boys her age. There is an ambiguous attraction between Mengele and Lilith, and it was one of the big issues of the film: how to deal with that attraction… Lilith also suffers the small size of her body. She’s having a tough time at school. I think that we all know how cruel kids can be sometimes when they are at that age and they want to make someone have a bad time…


Lilith is her parents’ little girl, she’s small, and it seems that nobody but Mengele has seen her growing. It is as if Lilith “needs” this man, his way of looking at her…

I think children and teenagers are sometimes in contact with darker sides and they can there cross the line to certain aspects of their personalities that maybe they don’t know so much. Lilith is discovering some aspects that maybe she doesn´t yet know about herself. The way Mengele looks at her, or men look at her, she’s growing up through that. In the same time, she’s beginning to have a political conscience. It’s not only the sexual aspect, I think she’s beginning to understand certain other aspects of politics and ideology: which is going on in her school, in her house, what is happening all around her…


How did you choose your main actors?

The casting was a very long process in “Wakolda”. First we began to look for the girl, Lilith, and for Mengele. They were of course two difficult castings. For Mengele, we needed an actor who would not only speak very fluently Spanish and perfect German but who also had to look very much alike Mengele. He needed to be the same age more or less. Alex Brendemühl has everything we needed. He speaks perfect German, he would make the accent that Mengele had, from the region he was from. He also speaks very good Spanish. He took out his Spanish accent to make it an Argentinian accent and he’s incredibly similar to Mengele. If you put one photo beside the other, it is scary. For Lilith, we made an 8 month casting. We saw hundreds of girls. It was very difficult to find a little girl that would be in any scene of the film. She had to have both the freshness of a very young girl and also a kind of a sexual intensity, which I think Florencia Bado has. Natalia Oreiro plays her mother. I was actually looking for a German actress or an Argentinian actress who would speak perfect German. Then I saw Natalia Oreiro in the film Enfance Clandestine (which we also produced in my company, Historias Cinematográficas). I was impressed with what she was doing. I asked her if she would be able to learn to speak German, even by phonetics, in 2 months, and she began to take classes every day. Natalia is a singer and she speaks perfect Russian for example. She made it, she learnt.


Where did you shoot the film?

We shot almost the whole film in Bariloche and Patagonia, and only two weeks in Buenos Aires. We shot the film in six weeks, which is very short. We lived in the same hotel where we shot the film. It was a lot of fun and a lot of concentration for the team because we were far away from Bariloche. The rooms of all the team were beside the set, besides the rooms of the fiction, and we ate in the same dining room and everything was there. It was good for all actors, an especially for the children. They were there with their parents, they could be playing in their rooms and they would come when everything was ready for the shooting and were free again to rest immediately after we finished.


The first sequences on the road to Patagonia are incredible. Why did you choose to shoot in cinemascope?

There is something about Patagonia: it seems to be infinite. Argentina is so huge, especially for Europeans! There are such huge distances to reach one city to another. There is something about trying to transmit the immensity of our country. I think that the first sequences can transmit how huge Argentina is.


You mix both paradisiac places and a really thrilling atmosphere. How did you manage to do so?

From the very beginning, with all the team, we wanted to work on this aspect of how in the middle of paradise, something so dense would be happening. Bariloche and all Patagonia are a paradise, it is not a casualty that this man arrives there and feels safe. He feels home because it looks exactly the same as Switzerland. At the same time, we worked on creating the darks aspects of this paradise in every location. We all worked together to create the atmosphere and rhythm of a story that had to have create this paradox.



Wakolda Film Page