Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Colonia Dignidad - horror or thriller/love story?

There is a new English-language film just out by German filmmaker Florian Gallenberger titled Colonia.  It actually had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, but it opened at the Berlin International Film Festival just over a week ago, and was finally released for wider distribution in Germany on February 18th.  It is up for limited release in the United States on April 15 and will also be available through video on demand. 

Since I have not seen it yet, I will leave it to others to do a proper review.  For my part, I want to comment on a question of ethics in filmmaking the film raises.  How does one bring a broad audience into a movie theater to see a movie about a piece of history most people would prefer to sweep under the rug?

I like to claim I grew up with Harry Potter,  even though I was in my fifties when the series came out, because I watched my neighbor and friend David in Japan teach both his kids English by reading them each of the seven books in the series, one each year. If you saw the eight films made over a ten-year period from the series (the seventh was in two parts), you know who Emma Watson is.  She’s not quite as famous as Harry himself, but the fact that she has gone on, as Daniel Radcliff has, to become a successful actor should bring a smile to the lips of countless numbers of fans who watched her grow up.

So imagine my disappointment when I came across a review of Colonia, the other day – it’s Emma Watson’s first leading role – and found the critic telling me it’s a real loser.  Poor Emma, I thought.  I want better for her.  I want her to succeed.

Then, it turns out, Emma is starring with German actor Daniel Brühl, whom many will remember from that very touching film, Goodbye Lenin, some years ago.  So wait a minute, I say to myself, how could these two lovely young people have found their way into a film that is going to crash and burn?  And there’s more.  Also in the film, playing the role of the sinister Paul Schäfer, is Mikael Nyqvist, who starred in the films of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

My sense that there must be more here than meets the eye was enough to get me digging into the background story of Colonia, tracking down information on a German cult run by an evangelical pederast named Paul Schäfer who, when it was discovered what he was up to, moved his whole cult to a remote location in Chile and began working hand in glove with Augusto Pinochet.  Not only providing a place for ex-Nazis to hide in Chile, but getting the German government to return the favor and providing a place for Pinochet thugs to hide in Germany.  For a while my interest in the film took a back seat to lots of internet speculation I have yet to verify.  But I was so taken by the story – and the fact I had never heard it before – that I began to hope that negative reviewer is wrong, and the film captures considerable attention. 

To be fair, the story did make headlines, apparently, when Schäfer was arrested in the late 80s and the child abuse story came to light.  But it obviously ran its course and, like all scandals, burned itself out.  It might have remained just another historical footnote, if Gallenberger had not decided it should be otherwise.

Actually, I began with a German television interview with a woman named Gudrun Müller 
who was brought to a place known as Colonia Dignidad by her parents as a child, where a man named Paul Schäfer had established a cult, after being exposed as a pedophile in Germany.  Digging further, I uncovered Deutsche Seelen:Leben nach der Colonia Dignidad (German Souls: Life after Colonia Dignidad).  It is available (without subtitles) here.  The story now began to unfold as a psychological drama about how people are taken in by charismatic leaders – in this case religious ones – and learn not to ask troublesome questions.  Quite unlike the Colonia film version, which is all about two young lovers making a daring escape from hell.

Doubly interesting, to me, is the way the story raises the question – but doesn’t answer it – of how it is that Germans could wake up in 1945 from the nightmare of having followed their Führer Adolph Hitler into unspeakable misery and destruction, and then turn around, a mere half generation later, and attach themselves to another Führer.

Paul Schäfer was a lay preacher with the kind of charisma, we are told, that led vulnerable people, like the San Francisco folk who followed Jim Jones to their death at Jonestown in Guyana, to sell all their worldly goods and move halfway around the world to live by the sweat of their brow, farming and praying and suppressing their earthly desires for sex and comfort for the sake of their souls.  After the war, Schäfer was employed by the local YMCA in his hometown of Troisdorf, just outside of Bonn, to work with children.   Within a short time he was discreetly dismissed to avoid scandal when it was revealed he had been sexually abusing some of the children in his care.  

Not long afterwards, in 1954, he became a lay preacher and formed a mission organization with another Baptist preacher which they called Private Sociale Mission e.V. and which preached an end-times message of fear.  It was the Cold War era.  This was Germany, and the memories of the Russian occupation were still fresh and it didn’t take a whole lot of fear-mongering to persuade the naïve in the population that the Russians were about to roll over them once more.  An ascetic life of good honest farm labor in the mountains of Chile far away from it all obviously held some appeal.   

When a warrant went out for Schäfer’s arrest in 1961 for abusing young boys, his followers enabled him to resettle some 240 miles south of Santiago, in Chile, which they named Colonia Dignidad.  The children who were to testify against him in Germany were secreted out in a single night, all 150 of them.  For reasons I have yet to discover, no one, apparently, found this move suspect or worth pursuing.  As one witness put it, “This was the Adenauer Era.  We didn’t talk about things like sex.”  And apparently the mindset which ran the Third Reich, the belief one was simply not entitled to know certain things, was still working in this instance.

Once in Chile, Schäfer separated the men and the women and the children all into separate housing and preached a message of sexual abstinence, all the while not only engaging in sex with children, but beating and torturing them as well.  This was made possible because Schäfer had organized his most ardent followers into a band of unquestioning loyalists, (who were called “Sprinters” for some curious reason).  Obviously religious faith in a man who speaks for God can cover a multitude of sins.

In Chile, the residents of Colonia Dignidad lived behind barbed wire, guarded by spring guns.  Tunnels were dug under the dormitories where conversations could be monitored and outliers punished.  Everyone lived in fear of being denounced, resistance was met with electric shocks and beatings, and nobody went in or out.  Almost nobody, that is.  Soon after Pinochet came to power, aided by the CIA overthrow of President Allende in 1973, he began to use the facilities to torture, a fact corroborated by an Amnesty International report, and to train his own men in torture.  Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal claims that Josef Mengele was there for a time, before he made his way to Brazil.  

Since interns were not paid, Schäfer was able to turn the agricultural compound into a financial success.  Meanwhile, Western leaders, most notably Margaret Thatcher and Bavaria’s President Franz-Josef Strauss, openly supported Pinochet.  The CIA under the Nixon Administration put him in power.  Strauss visited Colonia Dignidad on his visit to Chile to receive an honorary doctorate, and the German Embassy was redecorated by workmen from Colonia Dignidad.

Following Pinochet’s demise, several members of the cult brought complaints to the German Embassy about the goings-on under Paul Schäfer’s totalitarian regime, but were rebuffed and sent back to the colony.  Moreover, several attempts were made by family members of abducted cult members to get the German Foreign Office to take action.  They too were rebuffed.  Ambassador Erich Strätling is said to have been a close associate of Paul Schäfer and this association has now been highlighted due to the Gallenberger film. 

A Spiegel article from 1987 reports that Strätling declared he visited the place looking for underground torture chambers and found none.  The following year, the German government rebuffed the Chilean Supreme Court's attempt to remove immunity from two West German diplomats operating in Chile in a turf battle over who had the right to investigate the Colonia Dignidad abuses. To this day, according to a German Wikipedia article, the German government has taken no stand on the case.   No mention is made in the film of the connection between the colony and CIA assassin Michael Townley, now living in a witness protection program. Townley has testified that a toxin that killed former Chilean president and Pinochet opponent Eduardo Frei Montalva was made in a laboratory at Colonia Dignidad, although that report has been officially contested.

Eventually the jig was up for Paul Schäfer.  He managed to get away to Argentina, where he turned up in March 2005, but was extradited back to Chile for indictment.  He had already been charged in absentia the year before for the abuse of twenty-seven children and found guilty.  He died in a Santiago prison hospital in 2010 at the age of 88.  Twenty of his senior loyalists have now been convicted of aiding him in his abusive activities.

There is a bizarre postscript to this story.  Not only are some 120 members of the colony still there, but Colonia Dignidad has been renamed Villa Baviera and turned into a tourist attraction, which somebody has suggested is not unlike what it would be to open a MacDonald’s at Auschwitz.  On the other hand, who knows what survivors are up against psychologically?  Perhaps enabling them to stay on as a community with others who understand what the outside world finds largely inexplicable may be a lot less cruel than sending them out into a world they have never known.  The only question is what is to be said about whitewashing a history of abuse and depravity with beer festivals, dirndls, lederhosen and oompah bands?  And, once the sadistic perpetrators of Schäfer’s enterprise are separated from victims and others claiming no knowledge of what went on, one has to wonder how they can go on living side by side.

Having dug into the background of this “dignity colony” – was there ever a better combination of chutzpah and irony? –  I am now curious to see this thriller and love story with a feminist pitch (this time it’s the girl that performs miracles to save her man), if only to see what Gallenberger has made of this piece of his country’s history.  Oscar-winner (for best live action short film in 2001) Gallenberger is also known for his 2009 film about German businessman John Rabe (City of War: the story of John Rabe), credited with saving 200,000 Chinese lives during the Nanjing Massacre.  No doubt the success of that film figured in Gallenberger’s decision to once again fictionalize history for effect.  City of War – which also featured Daniel Brühl, by the way – was also criticized for being overly melodramatic, but in the end it received pretty good ratings (75% on Rotten Tomatoes, for example.)

I mentioned a negative review of Colonia which got me going on this story.  As of this writing, four of the five reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes have panned the film, as well. One complains it’s too over-the-top good guys/bad guys and suggests the happy ending stretches credulity, not unlike Ben Affleck’s Argo.  Another complains the film has shlocky horror-film techniques, including music, suggesting that the filmmaker’s intention is to bypass the political importance of the Pinochet era and make a cheap thriller, complete with prison escapes and car chases, just to put bottoms on theater seats.  To take one of the darkest periods in Latin American history and turn it into a Hollywood love story – a fictionalized one at that – you can see why the protests are coming in.

On the other hand, look at it from Florian Gallenberger’s point of view.  If you don’t get those bottoms in the seats, you don’t get people paying attention to the story.  Hitler is credited with the question, “Who remembers the Armenian massacre by the Turks?”  Actor Daniel Brühl says when he was first given the script to read he had never heard of this ugly postwar German story.  I had never heard of a German religious colony in Chile, either, or of this evidence that human gullibility didn’t stop with the fall of the Third Reich. 

The silence is underlined by the fact that there are still questions looming large not only about hushed up child abuse, but about possible German government enabling of a notorious pederast operating in Chile, possibly with their tacit approval.  Roman Catholic bishops, it would appear, are not the only authority figures – if these allegations about government complicity are to be believed – to circle the wagons to protect the ruling class.  How, in this day and age, does one get people talking about this horror?  What better way than to promise a thriller and hope, once the curtain goes down and the lights come up, that people will ask questions they have not asked before.

It shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, of course.  You should be able to make a first-rate work of art – or jolly good entertainment, for that matter - that still works to get people asking political questions.  But you can’t blame a guy for aiming for the largest possible audience. 

Or can you?

photo credit:  Photo credited to Majestic/Ricardo Vaz Palma

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