There is one thing you should know up front before you watch Colonia: it’s a totally watchable, highly engrossing movie, but the last twenty minutes are kind of bad. They’re not bad in a “this movie is completely ruined” sort of way, but they just don’t really fit with the rest of the story that’s being told. While I’m pretty sure the events of Colonia are fictional, they do revolve around a real place in Chile, Colonia Dignidad (or the Colony of Dignity), which was a commune for a religious cult that doubled as a prison camp for political prisoners of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. This commune was overseen by Paul Schäfer, an ex-Nazi who abused multiple children over the course of his tenure as a clergyman, until the mid-’90s. Since the film’s set in 1973 just after Pinochet has seized power, the story couldn’t end with Schäfer being exposed. That makes historical sense, but it doesn’t explain why the filmmakers felt the need to turn the last twenty minutes into an actioney chase through an airport.
The plot of Colonia follows Lena and Daniel, a young couple who get caught up in Pinochet’s coup. Daniel is living in Chile helping the supporters of President Salvador Allende, and Lena is visiting him while she’s on leave from her job as a flight attendant for Lufthansa; when the coup occurs, Daniel gets taken prisoner and named as part of the opposition to Pinochet, and so he’s driven away to Colonia for interrogation. Lena investigates Colonia and decides that she’s going to join the cult in the hope of tracking Daniel down. Lena succeeds in finding Daniel, but she also learns that escaping from Colonia is practically impossible. Because this is a movie, they of course get to escape eventually; the tension is more in seeing them endure the abuse that Schäfer heaps on his followers.
I could say something about Schäfer’s methods of abusing everyone, but they’re pretty well tread territory, at least for me. He keeps the men, women, and children separate and teaches them that they all have specific roles to play in the community. You have your typical set up of men receiving special privileges (in this case, getting to spend time with the leader and being allowed some recreational time) while women do the hard labor and get no personal freedoms, and the children exist in a perpetual state of terror as Schäfer sexually abuses them at his leisure. It’s kind of horrifying to realize that there’s nothing here that’s new in the realm of spiritual abuse. Still, the film is so well directed that you do feel all the dread and tension that Lena and Daniel are experiencing as prisoners in Colonia.
One thing that strikes me as particularly inexplicable is Lena and Daniel’s nationality. I assumed that they were English throughout the movie, and so at the end when they flee to the West German embassy I was thoroughly confused. They are apparently meant to be German like every other white person who appears, but neither of the actors speaks with a German accent. I suppose it’s possible they simply didn’t have very good German accents and so didn’t affect them, but the contrast is striking. Ultimately this is a minor quibble, but it still left me confused towards the end.
Overall I have very little else to say. Colonia follows a pretty rote plot, but its acting and direction are good enough that you shouldn’t generally mind. Even better, if you do choose to watch it you can just stop the movie after Lena and Daniel escape; that’s a perfectly satisfying place to leave them, and it saves the silliness of the airport escape and the passenger plane taking off from the airport without clearance from ground control.
So that’s a plus.