Dr. Josef Mengele is one of the names most associated with Nazi evil. Known as "The Angel of Death," Mengele was an SS doctor at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII. He is not only deemed responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews and other prisoners, but also for performing horrific scientific experiments on prisoners, including children.
Though he was one of the most-wanted Nazis at the end of the war, he escaped justice in Europe, both through his own cunning and the assistance of Nazi sympathizers. He made his way to South America, where he lived the last 35 years of his life continually on the run.
This fascinating documentary details Mengele's upbringing, his horrific crimes, and his run from justice for the remainder of his life. At first, The Search for Mengele seems to be pretty much a straightforward doc, but after viewing it, I realized the depth that this film went into. It did not shy away from asking tough questions, such as the following:
Can he simply be dismissed as a monster? The film does go into detail, both with accounts from victims and some horrific pictures, on Mengele's crimes. His crimes are haunting not just for their gruesomeness but their cruelty. Just one of too many examples: after giving birth, a prisoner had her breasts taped just so Mengele could observe how long a newborn could survive without nourishment. The mother, who survived the camp, recalls on camera hearing her starving baby's cries.
However, this same man was described by many who knew him in South America as kind and funny, as well as always whistling a tune. Mengele's last hideout was in a small hut near a dangerous curved road in Sao Paolo, Brazil. A friend recalls how Mengele told him that, if there was a car accident on the road in front of his house, he would have to go and offer assistance. When asked why, when such an action would almost certainly reveal his identity, Mengele replied, "I am a doctor. It is my duty."
There is no easy answer for such a contradiction. However, theories are offered. One scientist theorizes how children naturally follow the wishes of their father, often without questioning whether their father is wrong or right. Hitler was essentially the father of Nazi Germany. In Mengele's mind, how is he doing wrong if he is simply obeying his father's wishes? Second, an Israeli scientist says he has observed a frightening trend in modern science, namely that science too often pursues a theorem or goal without stopping to question the morality of pursuing such a goal: In other words, the question should be not only if we can, but if we should. The ultimate goal of Nazi evil was to create a genetic super-race which they believed could be found only through people of pure Aryan descent. All other races, particularly gypsies and Jews, were inferior. Mengele did not feel any moral responsibility to people he considered less than human and in a twisted way saw his pursuit of a genetic ideal as moral.
The majority of the film follows his run in exile through South America. It does an extraordinary job of not only finding the actual locations Mengele used for hiding but interviewing people with whom he worked and lived during his exile. One of the most remarkable interviews is with his son, Rolf. Rolf, a handsome, distinguished man, comes across as quite sympathetic. His father fled Germany when Rolf was still a child. He met him again as an adolescent, when Mengele briefly snuck back into Europe (he knew him then as Uncle Fritz). When, as a young man, he found out the true identity of Uncle Fritz, Rolf states bluntly to the interviewer that "I wish I'd had a different father." Finally, he bitterly recalls how he flew to Brazil to confront his father; Mengele, an unrepentant Nazi to the end, refused to take responsibility, indeed telling his son that he had saved thousands of lives. He even told his son, "They should build a statue of me in Israel."
The Search for Mengele is both informative and fascinating. The tracking of him though South America often plays like a thriller. However, the film does go into detail regarding his horrific crimes (thankfully without sensationalizing them) and does ask tough questions. In a way, it is much less frightening to see Mengele as a monster than to see him, as in this documentary, as all too human: could someone like him walk the earth again?
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