Mengele film shatters Germany's great taboo

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THE WAR is mentioned with increasing frequency, but death camps are usually a no-go zone for German artists. Many leading authors, especially the most virulently anti-Nazi, have proclaimed that Germans have forfeited the right to give Auschwitz an artistic rendering.

That taboo is about to be broken. A Berlin studio will release a big- budget feature film next week centred on possibly the most evil German ever to have existed: Dr Josef Mengele.

The film, directed by Roland Suso Richter, is a cross between a thriller and a psychological drama, with documentary elements woven in. As the film progresses, Mengele's character is dissected, revealing a microscopic core of humanity in an empty shell.

According to the fictional plot of Nothing but the Truth, Mengele returns voluntarily to contemporary Germany in his old age, suffering from terminal cancer, to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Just what Germans have been waiting for all these years, the producers hope. They might be wrong.

Schindler's List was a critical and box-office success in Germany, with many in the audience weeping. It helped to reopen debate for the umpteenth time, but the evidence showed there was still plenty to discuss. Whether Germans are now ready for a home- made expose, and whether the world is ready for a German view of Auschwitz, remains to be seen. The project ran into financial difficulties as a long list of producers declined to gamble on its box-office success, and had to be helped out by its two leading actors.

The cast, incidentally, is almost as interesting as the story line. In the dock - a glass cage in the set - will stand a heavily made-over Gotz George, one of the country's foremost action heroes who has been eagerly awaiting a challenging role to show off his dramatic talents.

The 61-year old actor has deep personal reasons for doing this film: Gotz George has always lived in the shadow of his father Heinrich, who was reputed to be the greatest of his profession. That alone is quite a cross to bear, but Heinrich died in something approaching disgrace, in an American internment camp shortly after the war. Some accuse him of selling his soul to the Nazis, by starring in their propaganda films.

Because of this controversy, George junior feels compelled to delve into the past, and believes the rest of the "Berlin Republic" should do the same.

"We bring back Mengele and therefore history to this city," he said in a newspaper interview. "This city, this country, must confront this situation - that's how this film functions."

Don't look for a happy ending. No one is even sure if George will recoup his investment. The German public, like some of the rest of the world, is fascinated by Nazis, but younger cinema-goers find masochistic works exploring national guilt something of a turn-off.

The real test, of course, is whether non-Germans can be attracted to a film starring the "Angel of Death".