The film “Colonia” opens up in the Latin American country of Chile, in 1973. When the film begins, the country is governed by the 29th President of Chile, Socialist, Salvador Allende, but that quickly changes. A coup orchestrated by Augusto Pinochet, a man who Allende appointed as the Commander in Chief of the military, successfully overthrows the Allende government. The official story for many years stated that, as Pinochet’s soldiers attacked the presidential palace, Allende committed suicide. There has been a great deal of debate that suggests that Allende may not have killed himself, but was instead assassinated, so much so, that in 2011 at the behest of his family, his body was exhumed to determine the exact cause of death. Forensic expert, Francisco Exteberria confirmed after examining the body, that Allende did indeed commit suicide; he was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head.
Daniel is a German graphic artist, photographer, and vociferous supporter of the Allende government, who is living in Santiago. Portrayed by BAFTA and Golden Globe nominee, Daniel Bruhl (Rush), he is also a man who is deeply in love. The woman who has his heart is a flight attendant, Lena, who is played by Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower). Thanks to her job, she is in Chile on a fairly regular basis. During a ride in a van to the hotel with the rest of the flight crew, Lena spots Daniel at a demonstration. She departs the van, and joins him. Afterward, except for one political meeting, things, for the most part, settle down for the couple, as they enjoy each other’s company over the course of several days and evenings.
One morning during breakfast, Daniel receives a phone call warning him that the world he knows has changed. The military has begun rounding up his associates and friends. While attempting to flee to safety, Daniel begins taking pictures of what is transpiring, so he can show the world at large the injustices being inflicted on the Chilean people. In a short amount of time, someone in the military spots what he is doing, and he and Lena are taken into custody. They are transported to an outdoor soccer stadium, where they are lined up with numerous other suspected, political dissidents. No sooner, are he and Lena lined up, than a hooded figure, who is being escorted by soldiers while walking in front of those assembled, points out several people, including Daniel, who is immediately taken away.
The location Daniel is removed to is known as Colonia Dignidad. To the world at large the camp is allegedly a charitable mission, but in actuality it is a place that houses members of a warped religious cult, and where prisoners are taken to be tortured. At first, Lena tries to enlist the help of Daniel’s fellow Allende supporters, to no avail. Determined to help Daniel, she devises a ruse to infiltrate the camp. When she learns that those who live at the camp all appear to be devoutly religious, she thinks up a story as to why she wants to join the sect, and dresses in the manner of someone who perhaps wants to be, but has not yet become a nun. Lena travels to the camp and, surprisingly, is accepted into the order with little opposition or probing as to why she came there.
Once inside the camp, she learns that what is projected to the outside world is not what truly takes place there. Members of the camp are not only forced to take medication as a way of keeping them docile, and work long hours tending to the land, but they are routinely subjected to harsh punishments for the slightest infraction. Lena soon learns a lesson, when she asks the no-nonsense, whip wielding, Gisela (Richenda Carey), who runs the women’s camp, if she can have a water break. Gisela places a full bucket of water in front of Lena, but informs her that if one drop of the water is missing at the end of the workday, she will regret it.
The men and women of the camp are kept apart, and expected to remain celibate at all times. There are two exceptions that permit men and women to be in the same place. One, is if a representative from the Chilean government comes to the camp for an official visit. The other, is when a female is taken for a barbaric ritual, where she is seated in front of the entire male population of the camp, and verbally abused and beaten upon. This is something that the sadistic, former Nazi who runs the camp, Paul Schafer, seems to take great pleasure in. Schafer who is a lay preacher that members of the camp refer to as Pious is acted by Michael Nyqvist (John Wick). He is a despicable man who likes to refer to women as sluts, regardless of their behavior, as well as get sexual gratification from engaging in deplorable acts of pedophilia with young boys. Schafer, for all intents and purposes, is left alone by the Pinochet government. He provides weapons, a secluded place for political prisoners to be tortured and imprisoned, and is in the process of conducting poison gas experiments for the regime. One of the downfalls of the film, is that none of what led to the relationship between Schafer and Pinochet’s government is explored in any detail. Only at the end, during the post credits, will the viewer learn a bit about the relationship between Schafer and those in power.
After a short time, Lena begins to actively search for Daniel in the camp. Unbeknownst to her, he has been put through a series of rounds of electrocution torture, in an effort to get him to give up the names of his fellow Allende supporters. He withstands the pain, and at the same time feigns brain damage. His quick thinking keeps him from being closely watched, and gives him enough freedom, so he can not only plot his escape, but take photographic evidence with him, before he does, of what is truly going on at the camp.
Do Daniel and Lena find a way back to one another? If they do manage to reconnect will they be able to escape from the camp? Does one make it out, but not the other? If either of them makes it back to mainstream society, will they be given the opportunity to expose the camp for what it really is? The film doesn’t leave the viewer with any ambiguity, and all of those questions and more will receive answers by the rolling of the credits.
Oscar winner, Florian Gallenberger (Quiero ser), directed and co-wrote “Colonia” with debut screenwriter, Torsten Wenzel. The film, which has a runtime of 110 minutes, is a blending of the genres of drama, history, romance, and thriller. Originally premiering on September 13, 2015 at the Toronto International Film Festival, the movie can now be watched on on-demand. I give credit to Bruhl and Watson. They did the best they could with the material they had to work with, which included a great deal of cliché ridden and flat dialogue, not to mention numerous scenes that came across as forced due to too much coincidence being needed in order for the scene to maintain its believability. Furthermore, I felt that the same applies to Carey’s and Nyqvist’s roles. They both did what they could to up the evil quotient of their characters without going over the top, but I’m sure it wasn’t an easy task for either of them. The filmmakers had an opportunity to explore a dark and disturbing period of Chile’s history, and instead opted to bypass the life of terror that many in Chile were living with on a daily basis, in order to tell a story of a fictitious romance that makes for a mediocre suspense film.