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‘Colonia’ (2016) Review

‘Colonia’ (2016) Review


Director: Florian Gallenberger
Writers: Torsten Wenzel, Florian Gallenberger
Stars: Emma Watson, Daniel Brühl, Michael Nyqvist


Set during the military coup of Chili in 1973, a young couple are involved in protests until they get separated and he ends up in a cult as a prisoner. Now she must try and save him.

The story starts with the sparks of revolt lining the streets of Santigo as people gather and protest in support of the president. Just flown in, working as a flight attendant for Lufthansa, Lena (Emma Watson) arrives wearing a safflower yellow uniform and in shuttle heading to her hotel, spots German-born activist Daniel (Daniel Bruhl) leading a swelling throng of activists. She jumps out of the stopped vehicle and in proper movie magic, parts the crowd. With a smile, she lures her boyfriend off the stage to engage in a kiss. They enjoy a few days of young lustful bliss and revolts before the coupe hits and Daniel gets in trouble with the military for trying to record the abominations happening in the streets (people are being rousted by gun-toting soldiers). The couple are held and questioned but while she is eventually let go, Daniel is not. He’s packed into a van and driven away.

Devastated, Lena learns that Daniel might have been relocated to the south, to a religious compound run by another German, this one named Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist), the founder of Colonia Dignidad (Dignity Colony), a cult-like hamlet where political prisoners were said to have been sent. An agrarian community, anti-communist, and fanatical, it is a place of torture and horror for those opposing the new military regime.

Naturally, when she’s turned away for help by those Daniel used to support, Lena plans to infiltrate the site and rescue him by herself. She dresses plainly and pretends to be seeking God, though when Schäfer gets a look, he’s not fooled (just to be sure though, he has her undo her blouse to reveal her decidedly sexy bra). Thinking she’s no threat, he still allows her into the fold and she is soon working the fields with the other women. She then spends her time learning the ways and the lay of the land. Meanwhile, Daniel is subjected to brutal forms of torture and grows increasingly weaker, though not as weak as his captors think.

Directed by Florian Gallenberger, Colonia works best inside the compound, with some genuinely impressive moments of tension. Nyqvist is especially compelling, creating a sinister character that doesn’t stray too far from most other cultist leaders in the movies but still manages to generate chills. Colonia is a very real place and one that has a long, fascinatingly terrifying history. The compound strictly segregates by gender and the Schäfer is practically a god for those who follow, holding absolute rule over the people. Women are treated like animals, working the fields and beaten for any real or perceived violation. There is one scene that uses this to great effect, with a hall full of men so riled up by Schäfer’s vitriol against a young women’s hope for marriage, they pile upon her with fury. 

Watson does her best and is effective in most respects, as is Bruhl, but this is also where the film shutters. Dressing the movie up as a romance in peril strips away too much of the weight from Schäfer and the cruel community he created. While their perspective within the compound is valuable, by the time they meet again and concoct their plan to escape, the film slows to a standard chase and caper plot, with too many coincidences and contrivances and an ending that is like a parody. It’s really too bad as there is a lot here that could have worked.

Credit must be given to Watson for continuing to break away from her past, taking challenging roles that are far removed from the expected. Similar to this year’s Regression, she finds the right tone but is squandered in mediocre film.