Movie Review: Colonia

Real-world horrors serves as the backdrop to young romance in this slick but misguided production



Directed by Florian Gallenberger. Starring Emma Watson, Daniel Brühl, Michael Nyqvist, Richenda Carey, Vicky Krieps, Jeanne Werner, Julian Ovenden, Martin Wuttke, August Zirner, Nicolás Barsoff, César Bordón, Stefan Merki, Steve Karier, Lucila Gandolfo, Katharina Müller-Elmau, Paul Herwig, Johannes Allmayer, Gilles Soeder, Rouven Blessing. Written by Torsten Wenzel, Florian Gallenberger.

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The Colonia Dignidad was a notorious cult founded in central Chile by Paul Schäfer, a former Nazi Colonel and convicted pedophile who fled Germany in the 1950s following child molestation charges.

Cut off from the rest of the world, the Colonia segregated its male and female populations and separated parents from children in order for Schäfer to maintain control over his population under the pretense of religion. It was guarded by barbed wire fences and watchtowers to prevent escapes.

If that’s not bad enough, the Colonia was also employed as a torture center by DINA, Chile’s notorious secret police under the reign of Augusto Pinochet.  At Colonia and other detention centers, over 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared” under the regime in the 1970s.

Most of this information comes not from actual content of the slick new production Colonia, but from some lengthy opening and closing scrolls. At its best, the movie can be said to inspire research about the horrors it so fleetingly depicts.

You see, this is another film from the Titanic school of historical filmmaking: a movie that uses an all-too-real world tragedy as the backdrop for a romance between two young lovers torn apart by circumstances out of their control.

Yes, Colonia invents two young European lovers – airline hostess Lena (Emma Watson) and “student” Daniel (37-year-old Daniel Brühl) – to experience the horrors of Chile’s Colonia Dignidad through a completely fictional, and often very silly, narrative.

When Daniel snaps some candid shots of Pinochet’s soldiers accosting citizens in the streets in 1973, he and Lena are taken to a makeshift internment camp at Santiago’s National Stadium. While Lena is released, Daniel is taken in for some electrotherapy-themed torture at the titular Colonia.

While she knows where Daniel has been taken, Lena finds no outside help for getting him back from the government-supported facility. So she takes it upon herself to actively join the ranks of Colonia under power-mad leader Schäfer (played with some creepy flair by Michael Nyqvist) and work out a plan of escape.

What follows is sometimes campy, sometimes lurid, and mostly tasteless, with Daniel – feigning permanent brain damage after the electrotherapy – investigating the hidden torture tunnels beneath the camp, and Lena trying to get his attention by bathing in the nude in order to face public humiliation from the camp’s male population.   

It’s not an uninteresting storyline, and Colonia does hold our attention throughout, though climactic getaway scenes are hopelessly predictable and particularly overwrought. Watson is a strong and empathetic presence in the lead, however, managing to come away from the production relatively unscathed.

But it’s all a bit icky, and leaves you wanting a more appropriate depiction of these events rather than this salacious Hollywood-style fantasy from writer-director Florian Gallenberger. One wonders what attracted the talented leads to the project.

There are numerous movies about the events in Chile during 1973, perhaps most notably Costa-Gavras’ excellent 1982 drama Missing, which starred Jack Lemmon as the father of Charles Horman, an American who was disappeared during the Chilean coup.

Colonia, meanwhile, is complete hokum disguised as an expose of horrific real-world events. While well-made and acted, it’s a misguided endeavour from the get-go.

Incredibly, the Colonia still exists to this day, rebranded and refocused as a German-themed tourist destination

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