movies, politics, religion

Colonia– how a 2015 movie helped me understand a Sting song from 1987.

Yesterday, after writing my second and mostly original rant, I decided to watch a movie. iTunes has a bunch of them on sale, so I often look to see what I can get cheaply. A lot of times, I get films I’ve already seen a bunch of times– guilty pleasures that never get old. Every once in awhile, I find a movie I haven’t heard of, but I’m intrigued by the description. Colonia, a 2015 film that was mostly made by Germans, Brits, Frenchies, and Luxembourgers, was one of those films I hadn’t heard of, but got sucked into because of the description. Plus, it only cost me $4.99 to buy it, although at this writing, someone has uploaded the whole film to YouTube.

A trailer for the film, Colonia.

The plot

It’s 1973, and Lena (Emma Watson), a German flight attendant for Lufthansa, and her German boyfriend, Daniel (Daniel Brühl), are in Chile at a time of political unrest. The Chilean president, socialist Salvador Allende, has been forced out of power due to a military coup. Allende would die on September 11, 1973, as the government was taken over by General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet would seize power from civilians, suspend the constitution, and impose martial law.

Daniel supports former President Allende and has given speeches to Chileans. Pinochet’s secret police, Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), rounds up people who are loyal to the deposed president. Daniel gets abducted by DINA. Lena decides to track him down, eventually finding out that he is being held by a secret organization called Colonia Dignidad, which turns out to be a religious cult run by a German lay preacher named Paul Schäfer (played by the late Michael Nyqvist). Against the advice of wiser people, who warn her that if she joined the cult, she will not be able to escape it, Lena decides to join Colonia Dignidad in an attempt to find her boyfriend.

The UK Trailer for Colonia.

Lena does find Daniel, who has been tortured with electric shocks and acts as if he’s disabled in order to escape scrutiny. But she’s abused by the leaders of the cult, to include a vile old woman named Gisela (Richenda Carey) who calls the women “cunts” and forces them to work without food or water. The couple befriend a nurse named Ursel, who is pregnant. They try to escape the compound, which is a heavily guarded fortress. Ursel is killed, but Daniel and Lena manage to get to the West German embassy, where they are betrayed. However, against the odds, they manage to leave the country with incriminating photographs of Colonia Dignidad, as the Lufthansa pilot takes off without official clearance from flight controllers, and spirits the couple back to Germany.

Paul Schäfer

Adding to this film’s intrigue is the story of Paul Schäfer. If you read this blog regularly, you might know that I find religious cults fascinating. I think a lot of them are just plain evil. Paul Schäfer was born in Bonn in 1921. Due to an accident with a fork, he lost his right eye. He later told people that he lost his eye due to a war injury during World War II; as Schäfer did serve as a medic in a German hospital in occupied France. Later, he was influenced by the American Baptist preacher, William M. Branham, who also influenced Jim Jones. Branham advocated a strict adherence to the Bible, which Schäfer also demanded of his followers.

Schäfer became a lay preacher and opened a children’s home in Siegburg, but was later run out of Germany because he was accused of molesting two boys in his care. Schäfer subsequently relocated his ministry to the Middle East, where he met the Chilean ambassador to Germany, who invited him to Chile. By 1961, Schäfer had moved to Chile, where his cult took root. The Chilean president at the time, Jorge Alessandri, granted him permission to launch the “Dignidad Beneficent Society” on a farm outside of Parral, in southern Chile. The society, which was founded on Baptist principles and anti-communism, eventually turned into Colonia Dignidad– the place where Daniel and Lena ended up in the film, Colonia.

The character, Paul Schäfer, appears just after Daniel has been tortured with electric shocks. Daniel is shown strapped to a metal bed frame, naked except for his underwear. As Daniel recovers from being beaten and repeatedly shocked, Schäfer shows up and comforts him, hugging him and speaking soothingly to him. As a viewer, I am led to believe this is how the cult leader gets Daniel into the compound, where he and the rest of the followers are forced to work. Males and females are kept apart, and children are separated. Although it’s not explicitly shown in the film, it’s implied that Schäfer molests boys. Indeed, the real Paul Schäfer was found to have molested hundreds of boys over his forty years leading the cult. But Schäfer colluded with the Pinochet regime, arranging to smuggle in weapons from Germany, since shipments bound for his ministry were never inspected by customs because they were for a “charity”.

Schäfer also conducted torture and took care of executions for the Pinochet regime, as he also ran a hospital. After a hunting accident, which required Schäfer to undergo medical care at a hospital in Santiago for months, Schäfer came back to his fortress and forbade all festivities. In 1966, a teenager named Wolfgang Kneese managed to escape the fortress and spoke to the press. Schäfer got another teenager, name of Hartmut Hopp, to accuse Kneese of sexual misconduct. Hopp was rewarded by Schäfer, who allowed him to study medicine. Hopp served as a physician in the hospital; he also prescribed sedatives for Schäfer, who would use them to subdue his victims, boys he raped who were sent to his colony.

In real life, Schäfer duped locals into following him until he finally lost favor when Pinochet stepped down in 1990. The next leader, Patricio Aylwin, stripped Schäfer’s ministry of its charity status and cut off funding for Schäfer’s hospital. In 1997, Schäfer disappeared, as he was up on child sexual abuse charges. He was tried in absentia in 2004, and found guilty. Schäfer was also wanted in Germany and France, having also been accused of child abuse in both countries. In March 2005, Schäfer was finally found hiding out in a townhouse in a gated community about 25 miles from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was arrested and sent back to Chile. In 2006, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing 25 children. He was also fined 770 million pesos, which was to have been distributed to his victims. He died on April 24, 2010 at age 88 of heart failure.

Lena gets verbally abused.

I wish Colonia had gone more into detail about Paul Schäfer. In fact, I think they should make a movie about him, to show how a charismatic man who preaches about Christianity can turn out to be pure evil. In the film, Schäfer is explicitly shown abusing women– forcing them to listen to a boy soprano sing “Ave Maria” in front of a room full of angry men. Schäfer would make a woman sit alone in front of the men, then viciously debase her in front of the men, who would grow more hostile until they were driven to attack her. He would sniff her, calling her a harlot and a slut. He forced the women to bind their breasts. The child abuse was sort of alluded to, but in the film he appears to have been a misogynist, more than anything else.

My thoughts

Before yesterday, I knew nothing at all about Chilean politics. In fact, the only thing I knew about Augusto Pinochet was that his name is in an old song by Sting. His song, “They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)”, was on the 1987 album, Nothing Like the Sun, which was released when I was fifteen years old and in the tenth grade. I didn’t know anything about American politics in 1987, let alone what was going on in Chile. But now that I’ve seen Colonia and was curious enough to learn more about the film, that song makes a lot more sense.

Gee… now I know what this song is about.

They Dance Alone by Sting

Why are there women here dancing on their own?
Why is there this sadness in their eyes?
Why are the soldiers here
Their faces fixed like stone?
I can’t see what it is that they despise

They’re dancing with the missing
They’re dancing with the dead
They dance with the invisible ones
Their anguish is unsaid
They’re dancing with their fathers
They’re dancing with their sons
They’re dancing with their husbands
They dance alone They dance alone

It’s the only form of protest they’re allowed
I’ve seen their silent faces scream so loud
If they were to speak these words they’d go missing too
Another woman on a torture table what else can they do
They’re dancing with the missing
They’re dancing with the dead
They dance with the invisible ones
Their anguish is unsaid
They’re dancing with their fathers
They’re dancing with their sons
They’re dancing with their husbands
They dance alone They dance alone

One day we’ll dance on their graves
One day we’ll sing our freedom
One day we’ll laugh in our joy
And we’ll dance
One day we’ll dance on their graves
One day we’ll sing our freedom
One day we’ll laugh in our joy
And we’ll dance

Ellas danzan con los desaparecidos
Ellas danzan con los muertos
Ellas danzan con amores invisibles
Ellas danzan con silenciosa angustia
Danzan con sus padres
Danzan con sus hijos
Danzan con sus esposos
Ellas danzan solas
Danzan solas

Hey Mr. Pinochet
You’ve sown a bitter crop
It’s foreign money that supports you
One day the money’s going to stop
No wages for your torturers
No budget for your guns
Can you think of your own mother
Dancing with her invisible son
They’re dancing with the missing
They’re dancing with the dead
They dance with the invisible ones
Their anguish is unsaid
They’re dancing with their fathers
They’re dancing with their sons
They’re dancing with their husbands
They dance alone
They dance alone

Turns out Sting was right. Mr. Pinochet left power just a few years after this song was released.

But anyway… while I think Colonia could have been a better film, and it was really just based on true events, it did lead me to learn more about Chilean politics. And now, I finally have more of an understanding of what “They Dance Alone” is about. I may or may not be moved to learn more about this subject, which isn’t a bad accomplishment for a film. A lot of people gave Colonia bad reviews, but I think if a movie inspires someone to do research, it’s done something pretty amazing. So, for that reason, I can’t pan it. I do think it’s kind of misleading, though, and I think it would have been a better story if the focus had been more on Schäfer, rather than Daniel and Lena. Also, bear in mind that a lot of the movie was filmed in Europe, with only a few scenes filmed in Argentina.

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4 thoughts on “Colonia– how a 2015 movie helped me understand a Sting song from 1987.

  1. Andrew says:

    One of the best songs on that album… I think They Dance Alone is what taught me about the Pinochet regime; I’d heard about it in passing from nightly news reports, but didn’t really care until Sting sang about it. Ah, my impressionable “Amnesty International” days in the mid-eighties… “Colonia” sounds like an interesting film, if a bit depressing – but, films like these offer a glimpse into history. I think we need more movies and music that present hard truths. Thanks for the recommendation, Jenny!

    • I had a feeling you would have something to say about this post! It is a good song.

      Incidentally, it was reading up about the movie and the history behind the story afterwards that taught me about Pinochet. I wasn’t as attentive to the film as I should have been.

  2. I’ve never heard the song.

    Chile seems to be doing relatively well now, considering how relatively recently they were totalitarian. I didn’t know much about their history. I admitted as much to a Mormon dentist who had served his mission there a couple of years ago as he was putting in an implant to replace a baby tooth that had no permanent tooth to replace it. he proceeded to enlighten me for the next however long it took to place the implant.

    I hate to judge any nation on incivility and uprisings in light of the nonsense in the U.S. basically since Trump was elected, but especially since he was voted out and stirred up all the madness leading to January 6. .

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