In this intense thriller based on true events, we enter Colonia Dignidad, the infamous Chilean-based cult run by exiled German preacher Paul Schäfer.
After having fled west Germany with some of his followers on the heels off scandal, Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist) started “The Colony of the Dignified” in the remote outskirts of southern Chile. With the full support of the Chilean government, his cult was allowed to operate for decades, and was even used by police to torture and detain criminals and those deemed enemies of the state.
Set in 1973, during the Chilean coup, Colonia is centered around Daniel and Lena, a young German couple who finds themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, a time when supporters of President Salvador Allende are being rounded up by General Augusto Pinochet. When Daniel (Daniel Brühl) is taken by the secret police and his friends make it clear to her that he will be taken to the Colonia and never seen again, Lena (Emma Watson) decides to go there and join the cult voluntarily in order to rescue Daniel.
Daniel is tortured by the police and uses this to his advantage in order to fake injury and pretend to be brain damaged in order to navigate Colonia with slightly less detection and try to find a way out. When Lena arrives and is forced to give up all possessions, including her passport, she realizes just how dire the situation is.
As if the remoteness of the cult isn’t bad enough, the place itself is a labyrinth of tunnels, a web of lies, and a culture of division, religious zealotry, verbal and physical abuse of men and women, as well as sexual abuse of children. As Lena and Daniel try to navigate this horrifying new world, they must contend not only with Schäfer, and the government who assists in covering his crimes, but also those within Colonia too scared to disobey him and too devoted to ever leave… or allow anyone else to.
Colonia is unique in that it doesn’t just expose life within a cult, but highlights the very real and very dangerous relationship between politics and religion, one which exists to spread fear and punish those who refuse to conform and chose to retain their autonomy, individuality, and independent thought. Watching the lives of those who have been inside the walls of the colony for years or even decades is a humbling reminder that human beings can adapt to almost anything, including daily abuse and dehumanization.
Although labeled a romantic historical drama, and centered around a couple, there is nothing romantic about the ever-present fear and helplessness that permeates the lives of those living in Colonia, or the evil reverberating from Schäfer. In this stark portrayal of the extreme, we learn exactly why the real problem isn’t questions without answers, but “answers” which cannot be questioned.
I give this one 4.25 stars.