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  • Benjamin May

Rua Alguem 5555: My Father (2003) Review

In 1985, the grave of notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele was exhumed, and his bones were taken for DNA testing, to definitively prove that the sadist had met his end. His son, Hermann, was present at the exhumation, and was approached by Paul Minsky, a lawyer representing survivors of Mengele’s barbaric experiments. Minsky wanted Hermann to explain the meeting he had with his father in 1977, to ascertain what Mengele was like during his last days, and why Hermann did not turn the war criminal in. As Hermann tells the story, a devastating portrait of evil emerges as unnerving as it is unforgettable.

Directed by Egidio Eronico, and based on the novel ‘Vati’ by Peter Schneider (which was, in turn, inspired by Rolf Mengele’s real-life meeting with his father in 1977) ‘Rua Alguem 5555: My Father’ is a compelling drama examining the conflict between familial loyalty and moral integrity. Merging fact and fiction, the film paints a well-wrought picture of the elder Mengele as an unrepentant National Socialist, who claims- like Admiral Dönitz in the powerful documentary ‘The Memory of Justice’- he was only doing his duty, and therefore not personally responsible for any crimes against humanity.

The character of the elder Mengele is contrasted with his son, Hermann, whose ethical considerations are juxtaposed with the inhumanity of his father. Hermann’s inner turmoil is well realized throughout Eronico and Antonella Grassi’s screenplay, while their characterisation is consistent and believable. Their examination of themes- such as the responsibility of the son for the sins of the father, the role of justice and forgiveness in healing the wounds of the past, as well as the dangers of fanaticism and ideology in shaping human behaviour- is mature and dealt with tactfully. Although the non-linear narrative structure seems unnecessarily theatrical from time to time, and the ending is all too abrupt; the journey there is a memorable one nevertheless.

Conversely, János Kende’s cinematography is underwhelming. Although the inclusion of real photographs detailing the horrors of Mengele’s work bolsters the overall message and narrative power, it is the only aspect of the film with any visual flair, weight or creativity. Kende mostly relies on static shots, dull colours and conventional angles, making proceedings look bland and uninspired. Unlike Henri Decaë did with ‘The Boys from Brazil’, Kende fails to capture the beauty and horror of the South American landscape, while also missing the opportunity to utilise symbolic and expressive imagery- such as shadows, reflections or contrasts- to convey the psychological and moral dimensions of the story. The cinematography doesn’t match the intensity and complexity of the film’s themes and characters; thus diminishing its overall effect.

On the other hand, Riccardo Giagni’s score is atmospheric, creating a sense of dread and suspense throughout ‘Rua Alguem 5555: My Father.’ His melodies also reflect the emotional states of the characters, such as Hermann’s confusion and guilt, Mengele’s arrogance or Minsky’s determination. Incorporating some elements of Brazilian music- such as samba and bossa nova- Giagni creates a contrast between the exotic location and the sinister plot; that Kende’s cinematography largely fails to do.

‘Rua Alguem 5555: My Father’ stars Thomas Kretschmann as Hermann, opposite Charlton Heston as Mengele and F. Murray Abraham as Minsky. Kretschmann delivers a nuanced performance, subtly showing Hermann’s conflicting feelings about his father and his vile deeds, while Heston is as commanding a presence as he ever was as the not-so-good doctor. He takes the role seriously, never drifting into the realm of parody like Gregory Peck threatened at times to do in ‘The Boys from Brazil;’ doing masterful work. Abraham brings power and pathos to his role as the dogged lawyer Minsky, while Denise Weinberg is consistently excellent as a fanatic of Mengele’s named Magdalena; who is just as sinister as he.

In conclusion, Egidio Eronico’s ‘Rua Alguem 5555: My Father’ is a powerful drama tackling several themes in an intelligent, nuanced way. Offering a unique insight into the mind and character of one of the Third Reich’s most notorious figures, the film boasts a fine screenplay, a stirring score and strong performances- especially those of Thomas Kretschmann and Charlton Heston. Although there are some structural issues, the cinematography isn’t much to write home about and the ending is far too abrupt; ‘Rua Alguem 5555: My Father’ makes for a most compelling viewing experience.


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