January 16th, 2017. Monday. 9:00pm. Feeling enlightened.
When I was 10 years old, my Year 6 teacher smiled at me and asked:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I smiled back.
“Emma Watson’s best friend.”
Alas, nearly 7 years on and my wish is yet to be granted. Mr Genie, where you at? Still, you don’t need a genie (or half a brain) to understand why this was the first thought that came to my 10-year-old head. Emma Watson was the talent behind one of the most awe inspiring child idols to date, J.K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger. On screen she was intelligent, witty, and courageous: 3 Easy Steps to Perfection! But off-screen… Wow. Could there be a more genuine, compassionate human being?
Well, it seems Emma Watson’s knack for beautiful role delivery has reached a new high.
Colonia, or The Colony, blessed the world in 2016, so I guess you could say I’m late to the game. That could well be due to the film’s serious lack of hype in England which, by the way, I am incredibly offended by. Why oh why did this film not smash records across the galaxy??
For those of you who don’t know, Colonia is a Romantic Drama/Thriller based on the true story of Colonia Dignidad (which, frustratingly, isn’t particularly well known either). It follows Lena (Emma Watson), an English air hostess who travels to Chile and meets her long-term boyfriend, German artist Daniel (Daniel Brühl). In Chile, Daniel creates posters for a secret rebellion against President Salvador Allende; this work finds Daniel abducted and taken to Colonia Dignidad, a secret (and very real) torture town and Catholic labour camp run by preacher Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist). Lena tracks her abducted lover to Colonia and voluntarily joins in order to find and rescue him, unaware of just how much corruption and sin lies within. I won’t say much more as this film blesses us with a roller coaster plot, riddled with twists and turns and adrenaline that I do not want to deprive you of. If you haven’t seen it yet, I seriously suggest that you do, but don’t just take my word for it. Here’s the trailer:
Florian Gallenberger, I owe you so much.
Now Arcadians, here’s where those of you who have not yet seen Colonia may want to close this tab, grab a copy of the film and cry into your pillow for two-and-a-half hours whilst you watch it, because the next part of this blog will almost certainly be riddled with spoilers. After you’ve seen it, please let me know what you thought!
I’ll see you on the other side.
Right, I hope I am safe in assuming that the rest of you have seen Colonia from the opening to end credits. Right? Good. Let’s begin.
I really don’t know where to begin with this film, so I’m going to start by telling you how much I liked it. I LOVED IT. No, “love” is an emotion that we shrewdly assign to everything we feel somewhat attached to, with very little thought actually existing behind our words. It’s fickle, diluted. It would be far more apt to say that I absolutely, unequivocally adore Gallenberger’s work. It is so rare that a film can render me speechless for hours after its conclusion; it is even more rare for one to bring such a tremor to my hands that I find myself unable to even tweet my fangirling for the world to see. Colonia not only did both, but it did so with such precision, such flair, that I started doubting every single detail that I had once believed about the modern world. Which is weird, as Colonia is set 40 years in the past.
At the very beginning of the film, we viewers are graced with the infamous, glaring words that haunt every movie-buff’s nightmares: “Based on a true story.” Ah, my sworn enemy, what big teeth you have!
All the better to eat you with, my dear.
I’m serious. As a media student, I am all too familiar with directors who plop “based on a true story” at the start of a kind-of-average thriller to make it scary and #relatable. It’s an old move, guys. Leave it in 2016 where it belongs. Having regrettably never seen a Gallenberger film prior to Colonia, I have to admit that I thought this would be another example of that sad cliche. I have never been so glad to be wrong in my life. Colonia, as it turns out, is based entirely on fact. There really was, as sick as it makes me feel, an organisation called Colonia Dignidad in Chile. It really was a “torture town” used by corrupt militants. It really was run by paedophilic preacher Paul Schäfer. It’s all true, and that’s what makes it so chilling. Of course, this wouldn’t be half as shocking if Gallenberger hadn’t gone and proved it with photographic and contextual evidence after Lena and Daniel ran off to live happily ever after.
Or did they?
I watched Colonia three days ago now. My best friend and I sat in a darkened room, separated by a pair of pizzas, a mountain of garlic bread, and my tucked-up knees as I sat in sheer terror through about two-thirds of the film. Not horror-movie terror, but genuine fear for humanity. That type of fear only comes to me when a character is experiencing something truly evil, because that’s just the kind of thing I seem to empathize with. It’s weird. It’s a bane, but also a blessing. Still, being as scared as I was, there is no way that Lena and Daniel could have escaped Colonia Dignidad and lived happily ever after. Fairytale endings don’t accommodate crippling post traumatic stress disorder and probable physical damage. I’m sorry guys, but it’s true. Lena and Daniel are probably in their late 60’s by now, hiding from DINA, Colonia Dignidad , and their own pasts in a tiny dilapidated house in the country. Imagine sitting in a therapist’s office, an infused steamer blasting in the corner as you are forced to repeat for the hundredth time that you were electrocuted, beaten, and electrocuted again, before watching a pregnant women die in your place. Yeah, this is what I think about when I’m lying awake at midnight.
Back to the aforementioned ‘probable damage’, though. Through a significant amount of Daniel’s time spent in Colonia Dignidad, it is hard to tell whether his torture had actually left him disabled or whether, in actual fact, he was faking it to blend in. Of course, his reunion with Lena reveals his true, *perhaps miraculously* healthy state, and we are slapped in the face (in a good way) by yet another layer of corruption. Quite inevitably, I have come across a number of small critiques claiming that “faking disability is disrespectful how dare you, yada yada yada.” Uh. Of course it’s disrespectful. That doesn’t make it ineffective. Here, Gallenberger is cleverly using taboo to reflect the distorted wickedness of Colonia Dignidad and the dark undertone of 1970’s Chile. It’s uncomfortable enough as an audience to see Emma Watson and Daniel Brühl, two beloved faces in film (and hence brilliantly cast by Gallenberger and his team), tortured and manipulated in the hands of: 1. a corrupt government, 2. a religious sadist (a living oxymoron), and 3. on foreign ground. Then, to make matters worse, we see our protagonist’s lover, the strongest face of the rebellion, degrading himself to (in his eyes) an all time low to hide from those he’d valiantly fought just days prior. The entire concept is utter genius. Chilling, of course, but genius.
But I still have one question. What were those strange pills?
At first, when Gisela (Richenda Carey) handed the women those ambiguous things one by one before they went to bed, I immediately assumed that she was handing them sacramental wafers as used during Communion. It made sense to me for a while as Colonia Dignidad is Catholic but, as Maddie pointed out to me, Communion requires wine. We then considered that the pills were contraceptive, but then there’s that tiny issue with Ursel (Vicky Krieps) being pregnant. Just to confuse the matter entirely, why on Earth were Daniel’s pills blue? Were they medication for his alleged disability that he hid to prevent, you know, an overdose? All of these unanswered questions have been plaguing my mind since Friday, and I’m afraid that I can’t answer them. Not before I re-watch Colonia with excruciating attention to detail. Of course, feel free to comment your suggestions and I’ll discuss them in a second blog after I have come up with (at least) something.
So, my verdict. Colonia seriously shocked me. From its practically nonexistent reputation, frank disregard by anyone who knows anything about film in my area, and not so great reviews when it was first released, I was expecting a mediocre indie film which somehow managed to gather a cast of absolute legends. Boy, was I in for a shock. Colonia was not only thrilling: it was terrifying. It brought to life a story which has to be told, a story which was buried alongside the innumerable innocent people it killed, and it brought it to life with such artistic flair and passion that it felt truly personal. And of course, it is personal: we share a planet with this evil.