New-York — Watching Rolf Mengele talk about his father in ``The Search for Mengele,`` a one-hour documentary film on Home Box Office at 8 p.m. Monday, the viewer hangs on to every word--spoken and unspoken--to find out what the son, a lawyer in Germany, really thinks about the Auschwitz doctor whose victims knew him as the ``Angel of Death.``
Choosing his words carefully, Dr. Josef Mengele`s son says at the film`s opening, ``If they really wanted to get him, they could have, but there were long periods in his life when they did not want to get him.`` The ``they``
refers to the several governments, led by West Germany, that had an obligation to prosecute Mengele for his war crimes. In the middle of the documentary, without a trace of emotion, he says, ``I would have preferred another father.``
In 1960, Rolf Mengele discovered that the man he had once met in Zurich in the postwar years, and was told by an aunt was his ``Uncle Fritz,``
actually was his father. In 1977, Rolf openly went to visit his father in his hiding place in Brazil. (A viewer is led to wonder: Why didn`t the authorities follow his trail?) Mengele lived on a protected farm, surrounded by watchdogs. ``He looked old, small and a little bit broken,`` Rolf says.
At first, they avoided talking about Auschwitz and the senior Mengele`s personal role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the concentration camp. Under the guise of conducting medical research, first on living humans, including children, then on their corpses, Mengele received encouragement and approval from the German medical establishment. When the subject was raised by Rolf, his father ``exploded.`` Mengele turned on his son and said, ``How can you imagine that I could do such things--it`s a lie, propaganda!`` Unrepentant, Mengele claimed that as a doctor he had actually
``helped`` to save many lives in the death camp.
Rolf found that his father had no remorse at all about what he had done at Auschwitz. He comments: ``I could never understand how any human being acted this way. My father or not, it`s beyond any human understanding.``
Mengele-watchers should find the documentary compelling because of the interviews with Rolf; with the Hungarian-born couple with right-wing sympathies who shielded him--for a price; with the Austrian couple who also were paid off for hiding him and who admired Mengele as an important person in the Third Reich.
In addition, there are interviews with people who saw Mengele and witnessed his racial experiments on twins and, by fate, somehow survived Auschwitz; with a German historian and journalist; with former members of Israeli intelligence, one of whom remains disguised on camera. They provide authenticity to this strong documentary, which will be rebroadcast at 9 p.m. Thursday as well as Oct. 20, 23, 26 and 29.
Narrator David Frost minces no words about Mengele, about the failure to pursue him, about those involved in Mengele`s escape in Europe and especially about the protection by the dictatorial regimes and Nazi sympathizers in the German communities in South America.
Among the strong points made by Frost are these: the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, a medical and research organization, sponsored and protected Mengele; American military officers naively allowed him to get away in 1945, even though Mengele used his real name; Red Cross officials in Genoa and ``the blind eye of the Vatican`` enabled him to escape from Italy because they wanted ``to infiltrate anticommunists`` into South America.
One of the most compelling impressions left by the documentary involves not ideology but the banality of money: bribes made on the escape route;
payments given to South American officials for documents and to the greedy Austrian and Hungarian expatriates for shielding him; sympathetic Austrian and German businessmen serving as go-betweens with the Mengele family in Germany. And especially how Karl Mengele & Son, the existing family business in Bavaria, used its lawyer to sustain and to pay off Josef Mengele in South America to protect the company from de-Nazification laws in Germany. In the end, it was money and business as usual that counted most in saving the
``Angel of Death`s`` life.
The documentary is based in part on investigative reporting by Bill Bemeister, an Australian journalist; inevitably, it uses already known material from the newspapers. Forthcoming books--``The Last Nazi`` and
``Mengele: Angel of Death``--have still more to say about him. Frost also serves as executive producer along with Roger James; Brian Moser is producer and director. To his credit, Frost remains off camera, not intruding himself as the ``correspondent,`` but allowing the images and interviews to tell the story.