The story sounds too frightening to be true: a mysterious cult in Chile, run by a former Nazi, is unmasked as a haven of child molestation and collaboration with the country’s brutal military dictatorship. But it is true. And now, this story has inspired an internationally produced film starring Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl (from Good Bye Lenin!).
After WWII, a former soldier and Nazi Party member named Paul Schaefer became a charismatic preacher, cultivating a loyal following in southern Germany. However, accusations of child sexual abuse arose and, fleeing prosecution, Schafer transplanted his flock to Chile, where they started a commune called “Colonia Dignidad” (“Dignity Colony” in Spanish) in 1961.
Nestled in the Andean forest, the Colonia Dignidad was an isolated enclave in which Schaefer enjoyed absolute control. Men, women, and children lived separately, and any fraternization, much less romance, was verboten. Schaefer punished violations of his regime with immense brutality, with offenders subjected to electric shocks and beatings. When procreation did occur under limited circumstances, Schaefer would separate children form their parents and subject them to the mercy of his sick desires. From the 1960s forth, several hundred German and Chilean adherents lived in the colony, constrained by Schaefer’s iron rule and forced to live a bucolic life of farming and ascetic isolation.
However, beating followers and abusing children apparently weren’t enough for Schafer and his Colonia Dignidad. In 1973, a CIA-backed military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile. A period of brutal political suppression ensued, with the junta and its secret police, the DINA, “disappearing” thousands of dissidents as part of a broader wave of right-wing military dictatorships in Latin America (see: Operation Condor).
Sensing an opportunity to expand his influence, Schaefer collaborated with the junta and assisted their oppression. With its isolated location, the Colonia Dignidad became a convenient place for the DINA and other junta authorities to do dirty work. Skilled from abusing their own followers, Schaefer and his lieutenants trained DINA agents in the art of torture, oftentimes on real subjects. Besides torture, Schaefer helped traffic weapons and might’ve even provided a proving ground for chemical weapons. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also evidence that numerous “disappeared” individuals (including US citizens) met their ends at the Colonia Dignidad, executed and then buried in mass graves.
In 2015, German director Florian Gallenberger adapted this horrifying tale into Colonia, which stars Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl as a couple caught up in the Colonia Dignidad. Watson is Lena, a Lufthansa stewardess stationed on the Frankfurt to Santiago route. She’s in love with Daniel (Bruhl), a young German involved with Chilean leftists in Santiago. When the 1973 Pinochet coup occurs, they’re swept up on the street. Betrayed by an informant, Daniel is shipped off to the Colonia Dignidad and tortured. Released but indignant, Lena vows to rescue Daniel. She finds out about the colony and, donning a nun’s robes, she makes her way there and joins up. What ensues is a highly uncomfortable and suspenseful thriller-romance.
Bruhl and Watson put up solid performances, convincing us of their characters’ plights. The narrative is almost too easy to trace — boyfriend gets in trouble, girlfriend makes huge sacrifice to find him, they reunite, and then they have to find a way to escape. On this count, Colonia is a great thriller and reliable romance. However, this comes at the sacrifice of context — by being so approachable (as much as a movie with sex abuse and torture can be), the film delivers little knowledge about Chilean politics. Furthermore, for the sake of drama, Colonia heavily condenses facts into convenient cinematic moments (ex. a high-speed luggage tug chase) that culminate in a very clean ending. While entertaining and bound to broaden the film’s appeal, this also oversimplifies the messy legacy that the real Colonia Dignidad has left behind.
Though now named the “Villa Baviera” (Bavarian Village), the Colonia Dignidad continues to exist today, purportedly reformed. After the Pinochet regime’s fall starting 1988 (to learn more about that, watch the excellent 2012 Oscar nominee No), revelations about abuses committed in the colony started gaining steam, buttressed by accounts of a few defectors who’d managed to escape in years prior. Eventually, Paul Schaefer was arrested (after fleeing to Argentina) and sentenced to 33 years in prison; he only served five years before dying in 2010.
Despite what you might derive from Colonia, there was no dramatic escape of star-crossed lovers that opened the floodgates on the colony’s abuses. Lena and Daniel are inspired by real events, but not precise representations of them. The truth is, there’s still much to uncover about the colony. English-language scholarship remains scant, though there are a smattering of insightful articles out there such as a 2008 feature from The American Scholar. A Spanish-language documentary about the colony also exists; it features archival news footage of Schaefer’s arrest, interviews from former colonists, and visuals from its propaganda initiatives. Regardless, as the colony continues to exist and recast its image by offering tourist activities and charity work, there are limits to investigative efforts — journalists have reported being turned away at gunpoint.
Dramatizations and excessive romance aside, what may be Colonia‘s biggest positive impact is in helping at last turn the world’s eyes to the horrors of Colonia Dignidad and the Pinochet regime. Just last month, in part due to the film’s influence, the German Foreign Ministry announced that it would declassify its files on the colony (as many of the colonists were German citizens). After decades in darkness, the Colonia Dignidad may finally be coming into light thanks to the silver screen.
Colonia–Germany, France, and Luxembourg. Dialog in English and some Spanish. Directed by Florian Gallenberger. First released February 2016. Running time 1hr 50 min. Starring Emma Watson, Daniel Brühl, and Michael Nyqvist.