A religious cult in Chile run by ex-Nazis?!? It may sound like a bizarre work of fiction, but the location portrayed in the historical drama "Colonia" (NR, 1:50) was all too real (except for the fictional romance at the center of the film). But before I get into my plot summary, I think that a little historical context is in order: In September 1973, a U.S.-backed military coup wrested control of the government of Chile from democratically-elected socialist president Salvador Allende and placed power in the hands of army commander-in-chief Augusto Pinochet. Under his 17-year rule, dissidents were persecuted, arrested, kidnapped, deposed, tortured and murdered. Pinochet's government used the remote Colonia Dignidad (Colony of Dignity) as a place to torture and murder some of the regime's political opponents. The public face of the colony was that of a charitable and educational organization. It was actually a religious cult where former Nazi medic Paul Schäfer imposed a strict Baptist interpretation of the Bible on all of his followers, many of who had emigrated with him from Germany. He forced them to live in dormitories segregated by gender, and with parents separated from their children, whom Schäfer sexually molested.
Daniel Brühl plays Daniel, a political activist from Germany who has been living in Chile for a few months working with a group of young people supporting President Allende. Daniel's girlfriend, Lena (Emma Watson), is a flight attendant who takes advantage of her week-long stopover in Santiago to spend time with Daniel. When a military coup suddenly drives Allende from power, the new government starts rounding up political dissidents, including Daniel – and Lena, who happens to be with him when he's arrested. In a soccer stadium, a man wearing a black hood identifies Allende supporters, including Daniel, who is whisked away in a van. Lena is able to trace the markings on the vehicle to the secretive and remote "Colonia Dignidad" compound, about 200 miles south of Santiago. She makes her way there and asks to join. "I want to know the way of the Lord," she says, wearing a small cross around her neck.
In her attempt to rescue her lost love, Lena is sacrificing her freedom – and putting her very life at risk. A harsh old woman named Gisela (Richenda Carey) takes her to meet the cult's leader, German expatriate and lay preacher Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist). "Once you join us, you must remain," explains Schäfer. Lena agrees, in spite of observing his Christian fanaticism and some of his innate creepiness. Gisela relieves Lena of the small bag she had brought with her, gives her a few items including a set of linen, and assigns her a bed in the female dormitory. Most of the women show no interest in talking to the new arrival, but Lena befriends another young woman named Doro (Jeanne Werner) and, later, another named Ursel (Vicky Krieps). As Lena joins the women in their daily work in the fields and in other food preparation activities, she learns what she can about the camp and keeps her eyes peeled for Daniel.
Daniel has survived severe physical abuse at the hands of the Chilean secret police in the colony's subterranean torture chamber, but he is a bit worse for the wear. Besides his physical injuries, his speech is slurred and he now talks and acts like a child. Lena finally catches sight of Daniel when she steals a glance through the window of the colony's assembly hall during a men's meeting and is obviously concerned about his state of mind. Soon after, at a rare meeting with the cult's men and women all together, Lena takes the risk of approaching Daniel, hoping that the two of them can come up with a plan to escape the cult, something no one has done before. But there's much more at stake than "just" the fate of two young lovers. Besides the terrible ways that Schäfer uses and abuses his followers, it turns out that he's also into some other nasty business that further reduces even the slim chance that Daniel and Lena have to get away for good.
"Colonia" takes a little-known chapter in history and spins it into an interesting and entertaining tale of romance and danger. The story is perhaps best understood as a combination of "The Boys from Brazil", M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" and Ben Affleck's Oscar-winning "Argo"
if you can imagine that. This film's unusual setting contributes to its originality, as does telling a story in which it's the woman who comes to rescue the man. The actors are well cast, and this accomplished multi-national ensemble consistently offers up lived-in performances. The direction, by Florian Gallenberger (who won an Oscar for his 2000 live action short film "I Want to Be
"), sometimes feels a little disjointed, but he mostly keeps things moving and builds some serious tension into the movie's plot. The script (co-written by Torsten Wenzel and Gallenberger) is creative and smart. There may not be much actual dignity in the Colonia Dignidad compound, but this film dignifies itself with some quality story-telling. "A-"
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