Florian Gallenberger’s Colonia opens with contemporary news reports and other archival footage about Chile in 1973, during the last months of Salvador Allende’s presidency. The film is inspired by real events that took place at Colonia Dignidad, the site of a Christian cult that collaborated with Augusto Pinochet’s military junta to overthrow Allende’s government. The cult, led by a pedophilic ex-Nazi, Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist), allowed Pinochet’s secret police to use the colony as a torture and detention center for enemies of the state. Unfortunately, the film’s early realism soon devolves into lurid exploitation and cheap sentimentality, as the filmmakers choose to present this historical episode through the eyes of a fictional European couple newly arrived in the country at the time of the coup.
After its introductory sequence, the film begins to cheesily establish the relationship between stewardess Lena (Emma Watson), who hails from some part of the Anglophonic world, and Daniel (Daniel Brühl), a German student studying in Santiago, as a series of come-hither looks and lusty smooching. But their romantic idyll is quickly cut short, as the two get caught up in the throes of Pinochet’s coup, and for a spell, the filmmakers capture the terrifying confusion of the time with a faux-objective aesthetic that stands in sharp contrast to the overcooked clichés of Lena and Daniel’s swooning.
Soon, Lena voluntarily joins the colony after she finds out from Daniel’s erstwhile comrades that he’s been sent there to be tortured by the regime. This scene captures the indifference of all mass movements, on both sides of the political spectrum, to the plight of its individual supporters. Though Daniel risks everything to fight for their cause, his socialist friends abandon him to his fate to save their own skin once he’s captured. But given the trite conception of Chilean politics revealed by the rest of Colonia, it seems unlikely that this was the filmmakers’ intended message in this scene.
Daniel is a student activist who refuses to have anything to do with his German parents, even though it’s their financial support that presumably enables him to play at being a revolutionary while studying abroad. And it’s telling that his vision of life with Lena positions her as a homemaker and himself leading the romantic ideal of a professional activist, even though she’s the one currently holding down a job. In the end, his unwitting chauvinism is no less cartoonish than Lena’s obliviousness. She never seems to understand precisely what it is that she and Daniel are supporting or why, even though most of the characters spend the majority of the film inexplicably speaking in English, as if for her benefit. Daniel’s sex appeal seems to be her sole reason for believing in the justice of their cause.
The perpetual look of perplexity that Watson wears across her face captures Lena’s absolute ignorance even as it yields unintentional comedy, as when Nyqvist’s Schäfer accuses Lena of being one those thoughtful types you have to keep an eye on. In this sense, she’s the perfect foil for Daniel, who convinces everyone at the colony that he’s an imbecile in order to avoid scrutiny. Brühl, a German actor speaking English while pretending to be a mentally challenged political prisoner in a Chilean-German colony, delivers a performance that’s a perfect synecdoche for the film’s confused intentions. Meanwhile, Nyqvist’s over-the-top performance as Schäfer exists in the same B-movie universe as Dieter Laser’s in The Human Centipede. Which is to say that Colonia is nothing more than leftwing exploitation cinema, a cheap thriller dressed up in the guise of a social-justice exposé.