Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Florian Gallenberger
Stars: Daniel Brühl, Emma Watson, Jeanne Werner, Julian Ovenden, Martin Wuttke, Michael Nyqvist, Richenda Carey, Vicky Krieps
Colonia is one of those movies where you can tell from the opening moments that at the very least it’s going to be a snappy little thriller. There is a certain charisma to the camera movements and to the way the period elements compliment the filmmaking techniques. Everything about it simply screams validity and slickness. There is nothing amateur about the film, it is a movie made by professionals for mainstream movie goers and contains a compelling story with interesting enough characters to make you feel you haven’t wasted two hours of your life when the credits begin to roll. That said, there is hardly anything exceptional about Colonia either. The fact that it does operate under such traditional methods allow for it to be a handsomely mounted film, but offers nothing in the way of being interesting or different. If you see the trailer or even stills from the film you can likely guess what you’re getting yourself into here. There is nothing wrong with this, especially if you’re director Florian Gallenberger making your English-language debut. The director, who is originally from Germany and has worked with star Daniel Brühl before, gives his latest film a strict sense of tension while loading on the information about the titular cult located in the South of Chile. Whereas something such as Argo or Munich thrive on capturing their period espionage thriller through the lens of the time period they’re set in Colonia more or less tells us what we need to know, hopes we get wrapped up in it and if not, moves on to the next act.
Given this feels like the mentality of the film throughout there is hardly much more to say about it. Having legitimately felt things as I was watching the film and did indeed emotionally respond there is certainly something to the film that makes it feel it has a lot to offer. Based on true events and beginning in 1973 in the midst of the Chilean military coup we are introduced to Lena (Emma Watson) and Daniel (Brühl), a young couple who become entangled in the situation. Lena is a flight attendant who is in Santiago on a layover while also using it to visit her boyfriend, Daniel. Daniel is a graphic artist who has been creating images in support of embattled President Salvador Allende. When Allende is violently ousted, General Augusto Pinochet’s forces begin rounding up his supporters. As a result, Daniel is captured and taken to the remote stronghold of Colonia Dignidad, home to a secret agricultural commune led by a sinister minister by the name of Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist). Daniel is interrogated and tortured, but simulates severe mental deterioration to remain alive. Helpless and desperate, Lena travels to Colonia and offers herself up to Schäfer as a follower knowing full well it is a place nobody had ever escaped from prior.
While the first half hour or so of the film deals in the tension of Daniel and Lena being captured and Lena formulating a plan of rescue the majority of the movie takes place in Colonia Dignidad. Radical cults are always inherently chilling and frustrating, but the idea these things really happened always hangs over the proceedings. When we first come into Colonia we are introduced to our two main antagonists in quick succession. There is Gisela (Richenda Carey) the head mistress of sorts of the women’s sect and the cult’s leader Schäfer who sees himself as a disciple of sorts who has convinced his followers he speaks to God and relays his messages. Of course, in reality Schäfer is little more than a perverted, war profiteering scumbag with a God complex of his own. Through Lena we come to learn all about the day to day routine of the commune and the strict laws enforced on it’s inhabitants. With this information we take it in and are both fascinated and repulsed by it. How anyone could think that a man who treats people the way Schäfer does is truly a man of God or looking out for the best in humanity is beyond me as even Nyqvist (the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), who can certainly make a menacing villain, is never charismatic enough to make us believe he could garner such followers. This is all information we simply take in and accept though, with nothing beyond the surface level details to dig into. Gallenberger knows how to deliver compelling scenes and tension-stricken moments (seriously, I was literally biting my nails at one point), but this is bear bones as far as anything concerning the psychological state or motivations of these characters.
That isn’t to necessarily say the characters are bland though, either. There just isn’t much to them other than their main objective. Watson is automatically appealing and so her charms are naturally conveyed in a character who is performing one of the most romantic and sacrificial acts of love one could imagine. The time jumps in the days that Lena has been at Colonia are a bit jarring at first, but make sense in the scheme of the story the film is trying to tell. It can’t be easy for an actor to automatically jump months into the future and inhabit how much a characters state of mind has changed in that time, but Watson pulls it off as we’re always on the edge of our seats hoping Lena doesn’t push the powers that be too far. On the other side of things is Brühl who is an actor that always brings great dignity to his roles, even when he is playing a Nazi war hero. As Daniel we are never so much worried about him as we are concerned that he won’t realize the sacrifice Lena has made for him. As far as the character goes though, Brühl does some interesting work when it comes to having to put on an act within an act while allowing his Daniel’s strong sense of obligation to the truth shine through. Like the movie itself, the performances are handsome and well executed. As a whole, Colonia is a fine enough film with a strong enough story and idealistic characters that even if it pushes things one too many times in it’s conclusion for unnecessary dramatic effect, it will do more to please the matinee crowd than whatever else they might have the chose from this January.