"Colonia": The Story of Another Chile

A packed, sweaty, and frustrated room greeted one of the very first viewings of Colonia, a film by German indie director Florian Gallenberger. Eager attendees awaited the opening of the room’s doors which, at its maximum capacity of 40 people, was unable to accept the more than 100 estimated movie-goers. People pushed and screamed for “justice”, as Foundation Estado Nacional, Memoria Nacional (English: National Stadium, National Memory) volunteers, the event’s organizers, struggled to reclaim order. The foundation’s director, Ms. Wally Kunstmann, later admitted to Revista Revolver that, “it is rare to have more than a handful of people attend a human rights event. We absolutely never expected to have this many people.”

The movie remains a mystery to the majority of Chileans: no major distributor has agreed to show it yet. Rumors hold that an undisclosed company reluctantly agreed to run it in early January of 2016, but no further news has emerged since.

 Photo by Ricardo Vaz Palma / Majestic
Photo by Ricardo Vaz Palma / Majestic

Shot in bright 16:9 format, Colonia is an interesting mix of romance and political struggle. Extremely graphic at times, Colonia tells the story of Daniel (Daniel Brühl), a German political activist with a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While shooting pictures of the repression of the 1973 Chilean right-wing military regime, Daniel is taken away by the secret police—to the dismay of Lufthansa flight attendant and girlfriend Lena (Emma Watson). Though a majority of viewers will be familiar with Emma Watson’s work as the super smart Hermione in the Harry Potter series, Daniel Brühl packs a strong record of his own. He was the star of Good Bye Lenin!, a widely-successful German-American historical comedy set at the end of the communist regime in Berlin. He also is well-known from his role as Nazi military hero Frederick Zoller in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards. Needless to say, Brühl is no stranger to the historical genre.

 Photo by MXtimes
Photo by MXtimes

The two, however, fail to tell a convincing love story. The first 10 minutes of the movie rashly transport us from a playful Lena and Daniel, fighting over a camera in a bright loft in downtown Santiago, to Lena submitting to the will of Colonia Dignidad, a German-run religious cult and concentration camp in Southern Chile. Why or how Lena became so attached to Daniel that she was wiling to compromise life and limb, we will never know.

 Photo by IBTimes
Photo by IBTimes

The movie quickly moves into Lena and Daniel’s graphically-intense adventure through torture and escape. The film also packs its fair share of political controversy. Before escaping Colonia Dignidad, Daniel, unbeknownst to the German, sexually-deviant authorities of the colony, is able to capture pictures of the meticulously-hidden torture chambers of the Colony. Presumably, his plan is to bring them back to authorities outside of Chile, in order to bring international attention to the site.

His plan fails, as the movie reveals that the then German ambassador in Chile is working in cahoots with Paul Schäfer, the real-life director of the Colonia. What follows is an implausible persecution that leads Lena to board a Lufthansa plane on the tarmac of the Santiago airport, leaving behind an angry troop of Chilean soldiers.

Though the movie makes an important step in recreating a difficult and relatively-unknown part of Chilean history, it fails to do what it should do best: tell us a great story about two people in love. The movie will certainly continue to interest Chileans and non-Chileans alike: the story of a German enclave in a remote region of Chile during the dictatorship is a story worth hearing, even if from an imperfect point of view.

One person has certainly been greatly moved by the movie: prompted by the movie’s story, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier agreed to release classified documents about Colonia Dignidad 10 years ahead of time. He also launched an investigation into the role of the German diplomacy in failing to protect Schäfer’s victims, issuing an official statement apologizing for the behavior of the German embassy at the time.

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