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Based on a true story, Colonia is set in Chile after the rise of Pinochet, when his political opponents were disappearing forever. In this chilling setting, a German photographer and an American flight attendant get caught in a cultish work camp.

Getting In

Nyqvist invites Watson to Colonia Dignidad
Nyqvist invites Watson to Colonia Dignidad

A German photographer named Daniel (Daniel Bruhl) who makes art against Pinochet is captured and remanded to the custody of a retreat called Colonia Dignidad (The Colony of Dignity).

The “retreat” is actually an agrarian, sex-separated cult compound with overtones traditional German culture. The camp is run with an iron fist and piercing stare by German expat Paul Schäfer (an outstanding Michael Nyqvist). Schäfer likes the disciplinarian style of Pinochet, and allows the regime to use his facility for torture.

The photographer’s girlfriend, an American named Lena (Emma Watson), finds out where Daniel has been taken. So she dresses in her primmest sweater and skirt and walks up to the front gate of Colonia Dignidad, asking permission to join the “religious order.”

Hell on Earth

What she hoped would be a matter of days — finding Daniel and making their escape — turns into a months-long ordeal, thanks to the controlling, repressive atmosphere of the camp.

Shchäfer does have that iron fist, but his first resort is humiliation. When Lena arrives he forces her to undresses for him, then shames her for it.

The worst punishment for women is called “the whore’s gathering.” When one of the women sins badly, Schafer schedules a special evening meeting. The woman is called out to the front of the men’s meeting room. Then Schäfer works the men up into a moralistic, judgmental frenzy, then encourages them to go beat the devil out of her.

As if Schafer weren’t creepy enough, a scene shows him molesting prepubescent boys in the shower, while the other boys serenade with their angelic voices. I think the movie goes too far in bringing this up — we’ve already come to despise the villain. But Wikipedia says it’s not inaccurate.

Polished for Mass Consumption

Abetting Schäfer is his own “nurse Ratchet.” Gisela (Richenda Carey) is a silver-haired, glasses-wearing, matronly figure who metes out punishment coldly and unexpectedly. When Lena asks for water while harvesting potatoes in the field, she gets scolded for it. “Is that how you serve the Lord, you lazy slut?”

Emma Watson’s job, which she handles deftly, is to convey repressed defiance. Brühl is less of a presence and more two-dimensional than Watson. It’s mildly refreshing that Colonia offers a lad in distress instead of a damsel in distress.

Still, I was a little annoyed that the film had to be “about” romantic love at all — as though the chilling tale of political repression weren’t motivation enough. Colonia is not an edgy revelation about a disturbing chapter in history, but rather a thriller, polished up for mass consumption.

An Argo -style ending oversimplifies the conclusion even more.

And yet, Colonia is forgiven, first because it works really well as an entertainment, but more importantly because it doesn’t seem to disrespect the reality of Colonia Dignidad.