An exceptional but dark and shocking coming-of-age drama based on true events takes us to Chile near the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship. The time of the action is 1989, and the place of action is Colonia dignidad, an isolated colony that was founded in central Chile in the early sixties by Germans who moved to South America after World War II. Of course, many of those Germans were escaped Nazis, and we follow the story of life there from the perspective of a poor 12-year-old Chilean boy, Pablo, who received a scholarship to attend school in that charitable institution.
The first alarm bell to suggest that Colonia dignidad is not exactly a typical charity is the fact that it is surrounded by barbed wire as if it were a concentration camp, and we also see leaflets looking for people who disappeared without a trace during the dictatorship. It will soon become clear to us that Colonia dignidad is anything but a normal educational institution, but that this bizarre community where Germans live almost exclusively functions as a closed religious community, as an insane and absurd cult with a charismatic leader who is actually a complete sadist, pedophile and maniac.
It will become clear to the curious and bright 12-year-old from the beginning that the place he has arrived at is anything but normal, but still he is a boy who was raised to be obedient, listen to adults because otherwise he could be punished. And the punishments here are quite extreme and painful, and Pablo will slowly reveal that gruesome things are happening there. In the beginning, he will even see authority in the figure of the community leader, whom they call Uncle Paul, and will try to listen to him and please him, because he is a man who enjoys enormous respect even outside the walls (or rather the wires!) of the colony. Hell, President Pinochet’s wife is also there and everyone is praising that real German miracle in the south of the country, and Pablo thinks that his instincts must be deceiving him when he feels that something is wrong there.
Unfortunately, his instincts will prove to be infallible, and the Chilean author Matias Rojas Valencia has made a stylized mystery drama that is extremely disturbing even though we don’t actually see any of these horrors explicitly. This film was shot with a lot of style and somewhat in a magical-realistic style with a nice and clean mostly static camera and with long shots and with carefully decorated and aestheticized scenography and complete production design. This film was shot somewhat in such a way that it all seems like a surreal and bizarre nightmare, and Valencia obviously intentionally enhances this bizarreness, but also the creepiness of the characters and the environment itself. But what is most shocking is the realization of how much the leader of the colony managed to brainwash practically everyone who lives there, not only children, but also adults, and it is partly clear why. All of them live in mortal fear not only of him, but also of God’s punishment, and young Pablo seems to be the only person there who does not want to accept his fate.
At the very end of the film, we learn that Colonia dignidad also served as a torture center for victims of the Pinochet regime in the 1970s, and that the colony where peaceful and religious Germans lived was actually just a cover for unimaginable abominations. The character of Uncle Paul was undoubtedly designed after Paul Schäfer, the long-time leader of the colony and a pedophile who fled Germany in the early sixties to avoid accusations of child sexual abuse. At the invitation of the then conservative Chilean government, he settled there and soon established a colony where gruesome, unimaginable things happened, and today the place where Colonia dignidad once stood is open as a resort for tourists.