Netflix Hidden Gem #86: Colonia
Director: Florian Gallenberger
Screen Media Films
Synopsis: During the Chilean military coup of 1973, a German stewardess and her boyfriend are forcibly inducted into Colonia Dignidad, a cult led by an evil German preacher. Based on a true story.
Overview: Despite Colonia’s small production, there is a grand sense of scale surrounding the narrative events of the film. Though executed like an indie drama, it’s hard not to envision that twenty years ago this same story would have been executed with the same sweeping scale of epic romance that made The English Patient and Titanic Best Picture winners. But unlike the familiar backdrop of WWII or the infamous sinking that made those films easy to navigate for general audiences, Colonia’s backdrop is strange and unfamiliar. There is little background information given to the audience during the opening of the film, and for those unfamiliar with the political events surrounding Chile in the early 70s (most of us), it may feel like we’ve been tossed into a world that might as well be a dystopic glimpse at a possible future. Gallenberger seems to revel in our unfamiliarity, providing himself with an out that allows him to avoid the tropes of romance that seemingly must exist when everything surrounding it has been so numerously depicted across film. Because Gallenberger is dealing with a story that hasn’t been portrayed in film, he’s allowed the freedom to explore the romantic period drama through unconventional means.
We only spend a brief amount of time with airline stewardess Lena (Emma Watson) and her politically-minded boyfriend, Daniel (Daniel Brühl), before they are separated by the country’s secret police in the midst of a protest. But in those brief moments we spend with them, their chemistry is apparent. This isn’t achieved through dialogue, but through their looks. Watson and Brühl both have powerful emotional vulnerability in their eyes, which makes them sympathetic and identifiable. Even though the script doesn’t do much to cement the relationship between Lena and Daniel, their performances provide enough credibility that we can buy where the story goes. Once Daniel is taken to Colonia, Lena disguises herself as a conservative Christian woman and joins the cult in order to save him and escape, a feat that no one has achieved. It’s in Colonia that the film achieves a perfect balance of emotional warmth through Watson and Brühl’s performances, and the tense eeriness of a thriller that’s achieved through Gellenberger’s impressive shot composition, and Hansjörg Weißbrich’s editing, which never allows us to peer too closely at the compound or the people who operate it.
While most period dramas with romance at the heart of their narrative would linger on moments, Colonia is only allowed fragments. Gallenberger keeps this world at a distance from us, selectively choosing what to show and what to hide all in the effort to create tensions within foundations. Neither the order of the cult, or the romance between Daniel and Lena seem all that sturdy, as we are presented with an outward appearance of order but an inward look at chaos and doubt. Lena’s efforts to save Daniel, are at odds with the fact that Daniel’s (perhaps naïve) political nature and desire to take photographs landed him in this situation in the first place. The film doesn’t avoid blame, and while it could have done more in this regard, Colonia is interested in more than absolutes and sturdiness. Built in that same vein of weak foundations is the cult’s leader, Paul Schäfer, played by Michael Nyqvist. Schäfer is guilty of many of the same moral corruption as many cult leaders: misogyny, the sexual abuse of children, and a mad quest for power under the guise of Christianity. Yet, for all of these familiar aspects, Schäfer remains a frightening presence in the film because Nyqvist doesn’t play him like a preacher spoiled for want of power, but as a Nazi whose evil comes across as a pseudo-scientific effort to push the boundaries of human decency. While this isn’t mentioned in the film, the real-life Schäfer was a member of the Hitler Youth before becoming a medic in WWII and eventually a preacher. There’s a theme in Stephen King’s novella Apt Pupil about how evil simply needs a channel through which to express itself, and it doesn’t matter what that channel is. According to this idea, Nazism is only an excuse for evil, and the same individual could have become a serial killer, or a cult leader, or terrorist under different circumstances. This idea speaks directly to Schäfer’s character – and the film’s themes of foundations being cracked – from the onset. Neither love, Christianity, or political revolution are handled with a sense of strong romance or absolutes, but with a refreshing groundedness that blurs genre lines.
While Colonia doesn’t quite marry its themes together by the film’s end, a collection of convincing performances, clear direction, inventive editing, and a compelling story make for a solidly built dramatic thriller that exists within a fascinating coalescence of political and moral ideologies.
Featured Image: Screen Media Films