Although it suffers from an unfocused, corporatised script, and a lacklustre performance from Emma Watson, Colonia is worth checking out just for the subject matter and for Gallenberger's forward-thinking direction
German Academy Award winner Florian Gallenberger’s third feature film, Colonia, is a well-directed and well-produced pity that suffers from a hijacked script and a stilted lead performance by Harry Potter alumni Emma Watson. Set in Chile during the 1973 military coup, Colonia focuses on the eponymous Colonia Dignidad, a real-life Christian cult and ally to the corrupt Pinochet regime, led by runaway German paedophile and lay-preacher Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist). Regular Gallenberger collaborator Daniel Brühl plays Daniel, a German political activist whose work with the socialist Allende movement lands him in a secret detention centre and torture camp operating out of the access tunnels under Schäfer’s colony compound. His girlfriend, English air hostess Lena (Emma Watson), poses as a willing recruit to the Colonia in order to infiltrate the private Parral compound, find Daniel and escape.
Initially, it’s a neat gender twist on the escape thriller formula – a big draw for leading lady Emma Watson whose feminist activism has finally started to displace Hermione in recent years. It’s a shame then, that the evolution of Watson’s public persona has not carried over to her wooden acting. This may be a step too far for the Potter child-star. The script’s refreshing gender-role-rethink is regrettably walleyed as the movie heads deeper into the predominantly misogynist atrocities of the compound, and Daniel resurfaces to take on a bigger and more important role in the story.
You can’t really criticise the prominence of misogyny in the film; there was no way that Gallenberger could have avoided it when female degradation and humiliation were so central to Schäfer’s gross ideology. But that does not change the fact that there is a clear and thematically awkward disparity between Lena and Daniel’s experiences that undercuts the tension built up by the former with the apparent freedoms of the latter. Apart from his initial torture, Daniel is pretty much left to his own devices in the compound repair shed, and often has free-range of the colony grounds. Lena and her cult sorority however, are constantly abused and tormented by Schäfer, the other men at regular ‘men’s meetings’ (which are just group beatings), and cruel cult matriarch Auntie Gisela, rendered brilliantly by acting stalwart Richenda Carey. There are reasons for this disparity that I won’t get into for fear of spoiling too much, and more to the point, story logic isn’t even the problem; the problem is that Daniel is so well positioned to survive and escape that Lena’s efforts end up feeling pointless. All she manages to do is make his escape their escape. The dynamic regresses and the novelty of the initial premise is lost, and that’s a shame.
Moreover, Lena is not just a tonal detriment, but a plain and uninteresting character that begets a plain and uninteresting performance. Watson is as stilted and dull as the dialogue and, if what Lena was going through wasn’t so extreme and upsetting, it would be hard to be emotionally invested in her story. It’s all very in the box for something that was meant to play outside of it, even though it had every opportunity to do so. The film distracts from its questionable writing with violence and psychosexual torture, which means that you’re too busy with the easy shocks to consider how one-dimensional the protagonist is – how, rather than a fleshed out heroine that the film needed to match the gravity of its subject, we got a patchwork of clichés. When Lena ends up at one of the men’s meetings, she doesn’t cry and she doesn’t scream; she stares Schäfer right in the face as he denigrates and slaps her, and then encourages the others to join in. It is simply not believable, and it’s insulting to anyone that went through it or anything similar; because you would be terrified, and would have every right and reason to be. Why is it that men can openly suffer and scream their way through historical fiction, but women have to be spunky, stone-faced martyrs if they want to make the cut? I don’t buy it, and I didn’t buy Lena.
Luckily, every other facet of the production is fantastic. From the obvious amount of effort that went into research, to the brutalist brickwork sets, the kinetic cinematography and the choreography of hundreds of extras – all laymen, women and, most impressively, children – that Gallenberger transforms into a stunted and arrested cult, there is clear commitment to authenticity and a passion for the subject matter.
But now we have to talk about the ending.
After all the tension, all the atmosphere and world-building, the film culminates in a ludicrous chase scene through a conveniently empty airport, with Lena and Daniel racing to catch a plane – again, conveniently (being the key word) piloted by Lena’s old captain. And that’s his character- piling into a luggage cart and zipping across the tarmac to the airstairs with, and no I’m not fucking with you, Schäfer, the head of DINA (the Chilean secret police), the German ambassador and a bunch of soldiers, in hot pursuit. They just manage to make it and the door just closes in time and they just manage to convince the pilot to violate international law and take off even after being given an official directive by air traffic control not to do so. Gallenberger ends up trading in the same false tension as Ben Affleck’s awful Academy-bait Argo, and that’s because it’s what the studio(s) asked for.
When I interviewed Florian about the film, he told me that in Germany, true-event films are expected to be either heavy history lessons or romanticized lackadaisy and adventure. He said that he hoped Colonia could bridge that gap. Well, it doesn’t; both sides of the German style are there, but they aren’t complementary. Instead of a hybrid, we get a contradiction that paints in traumatic historical blacks and whimsical romantic whites. It’s strange, then, that it’s still good and that I would recommend it; because although it doesn’t come together, the parts of the whole that could have been are good enough on their own. Just remember to walk out before Lena and Daniel reach the embassy.
Colonia (2016), directed by Florian Gallenberger, is distributed by Signature Entertainment, certificate 15.