Colonia. 2016. Directed by Florian Gallenberger. Screenplay by Gallenberger & Torsten Wenzel.
Starring Emma Watson, Daniel Brühl, Michael Nyqvist, Richenda Carey, Vicky Krieps, Jeanne Werner, Julian Ovenden, August Zirner, Martin Wuttke, Nicolás Barsoff, Steve Karier, Stefan Merki, Lucila Gandolfo, Johannes Allmayer, & Gilles Soeder. Majestic Filmproduktion/Iris Productions/Rat Pack Filmproduktion.
Rated 14A. 110 minutes.
The story of Colonia Dignidad – a.k.a Dignity Colony – and its enigmatic, terrifying leader Paul Schäfer is not a story many in the Western world know. Schäfer was German, escaping charges of child molestation and sexual assault, and founded the colony in 1961. Under Schäfer, the colony was immersed in eccentric religion, as well as an authoritarian rule by their leader himself. They were not allowed to see their loved ones, from parents to children to spouses. Above all else, Schäfer was a misogynist whose deep-seated issues with women is evident through how he ran his little cult. Even the Angel of Death hismelf, Josef Mengele, has been confirmed to have been at the colony during some point by both the Central Intelligence Agency, and also famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. So on top of the fact he was simply an abuser wrapped in the clothes of a father figure and a mentor, Schäfer further had ties with Nazi Germany and the SS, which only makes things more disturbing.
And so, with stories of people escaping, fleeing the brutal abuse and the authoritarianism, Colonia is based on true events. This is the story of one man whose disappearance at the hands of military men landed him in Colonia Dignidad, and whose wife never gave up looking for him. With a couple spectacular performances from Daniel Brühl, Emma Watson, and Michael Nyqvist, this is better than the average ‘Based On a True Story’ fare. Although, the film is not perfect. Whereas Schäfer was German, and many Germans were a part of the group, there feels to be a significant lack of Chilean actors and characters in general, outside of the military men and the brief appearances of General Augusto Pinochet. In a day and age where whitewashing films is all too common, and for a film that’s set in Chile, it’s hard to imagine why they didn’t include more of the Chilean people, as they were also very affected – not only by Schäfer, but by Pinochet, who used the colony as a secret camp for torture, murder, and much more.
In 1973, Lena (Emma Watson) works as flight attendant, while her husband Daniel (Daniel Brühl) is a photographer and semi-activist. Joining protests in the streets against General Augusto Pinochet, Daniel gets abducted and separated from his wife by DINA, Pinochet’s secret police. He is whisked away to a secretive black site where they torture him relentlessly, at least until Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist) comes to take him away after he’s almost been shocked into being mentally challenged. Schäfer takes Daniel to Colonia Dignidad, which is supposedly a charitable religious organization he runs. Only it is so much more. When Lena digs up the truth, she joins Colonia Dignidad. What she discovers ranges from sexual and physical abuse, to cult-like activities, as well as the fact Schäfer operates the colony as a black site where Pinochet brings various political prisoners for torture, and most often death. What follows is Lena’s desperate attempt to save her husband from Schäfer and the colony’s deadly grip.
In terms of directing, there’s nothing overly impressive other than a generally decent atmosphere and look to the film. What’s most impressive in this mediocre film is the acting. Both Daniel Brühl and Emma Watson are each excellent in their lead roles. Brühl’s role is technically smaller, even if his character’s situation drives the plot, but that doesn’t mean it comes as any less intense. Especially when DINA rushes him off to Pinochet’s secret spot in the colony, then we watch him get tortured into an almost regressive state of human behaviour. Even better, his character then puts on act to try and keep himself under the radar, which showcases Brühl’s ability to jump from one part of his range to another quickly. Most of all, it’s Watson who carries the cast. She is a happy-go-lucky-type at the start, but as Colonia wears on her demeanour is forced to change. Through the series of events that come down her character Lena becomes someone paranoid (and rightfully so), impossibly tough, and also hardened. I’ve always loved Watson since Harry Potter because she is charming and energetic, and like Brühl has an incredible amount of range. If anything, you’ll stick with the film strictly to watch her performance.
Also, I can’t go on without mentioning Michael Nyqvist. He is a huge talent. Of course most know him after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the whole Millenium trilogy alongside Noomi Rapace. Me, I’ve personally been a fan of his from the time of 2005’s horrifically psychological/Hitchcockian Norwegian thriller Naboer. First of all, Nyqvist actually sort of resembles the real life Paul Schäfer, which is always a plus for an actor playing a real life person; not always required if their performance can transcend appearance, but here it helps simply because Schäfer was an eerie sort of man. Nyqvist appears almost saviour-like in his first moments, then gradually we’re introduced to his other persona, the one which hides behind the big gates and the militarized border of Colonia Dignidad. Over the course of the film he becomes monstrous, so much so that even his presence onscreen is enough to unsettle you without requiring dialogue. If it weren’t for Nyqvist, Schäfer could’ve easily been a copy of a copy. Instead he is highly terrifying from one moment to the next, and the angry, misogynistic violence inside Schäfer can emerge explosively, unexpected with Nyqvist in the role.
While director Florian Gallenberger doesn’t do anything wild in regards to directorial choices, he is successful at keeping Colonia extremely tense. Both Gallenberger and Torsten Wenzel have come up with a decent enough screenplay, despite not exploring the Chilean side of things/Pinochet enough for what the subject matter commands. Nevertheless, each scene is more tense than the last. And the finale is a particularly pulse-pounding experience, as you wonder whether the married couple will finally escape Chile, the colony, and above all Schäfer. But ultimately, Colonia is a 3-star film. If there were some better additions to the screenplay concerning the politics, the dark connections of Schäfer to people like the Nazis, Mengele, even Pinochet and DINA, then perhaps the story might’ve elevated things further. Yes, we do get bits and pieces of the Pinochet reign of power included, as the General comes for weapons, to check on those being tortured, so on, there just simply isn’t enough. Most of the story is focused on the day-to-day of the colony, and that’s fine. However, with a story that’s incredibly political, Gallenberger and Wenzel stick a little too closely to the smaller emotional story at its center. If you go in knowing this, expecting only a tight dramatic look at the married couple and their awful experience, then it may make the film better. There’s simply too much more in the real story that wasn’t told, and with only three solid actors to hold it up the film never reaches anything past being a decent historical drama with some romance and thrills mixed in for taste.