Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Colonia: To Be Young, Dumb, and German in Chile

Say what you will about that old bastard Pinochet, but at least he never foisted a propaganda movie as lame as this on the film market. Loosely inspired by a very real, Pinochet-supporting cult, it is “based on a true story” in the way most horror movies are. Subtlety and context are in short supply throughout Florian Gallenberger’s Colonia (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1970, Salvador Allende won a 36% plurality of the vote in Chile’s presidential election. Almost two-thirds of the country voted against him, but he secured his victory in Chile’s congress, thanks to the KGB’s money. As his masters expected, Allende quickly took steps to mold Chile into a Soviet client-state, alarming the majority of the nation that voted for centrist or center-right candidates. Eventually, Pinochet came to power through a coup, much like numerous Latin American autocrats before and since. However, Gallenberger and co-writer Torsten Wenzel prefer to parrot the Soviet propaganda line claiming Allende was “for the poor.”

As Colonia opens, German expat Daniel has bought into the Allende myth hook, line, and sinker. He makes propaganda posters for the cause when he is not romancing Lena, his vaguely British flight attendant girlfriend. When things go sour, Daniel is rounded up and shipped off to Colonia Dignidad, a German-speaking Koresh-ish crypto-Christian commune led by former National Socialist pedophile Paul Schäfer.

When Lena learns Daniel’s torture sessions have been outsourced to Colonia Dignidad, she goes undercover, hoping to find him. Naturally, they immediately accept her, despite the fact that she is neither a native Chilean, or as far as we can tell, of Teutonic extraction. (The film seems to imply she is some sort of Anglo, which makes the climax even more illogical.) Regardless, Lena starts snooping around like a much-abused Hester Prynne. She soon spies Daniel, but it will take a bit of time before he can assure he is only faking brain damage as a means to fool his interrogators.

Daniel Brühl’s performance goes well past problematic, lurching into genuinely offensive terrain. It is like watching the most awkward high school dramatic staging of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men ever perpetrated in public. For the sake of Brühl’s reputation, Gallenberger or one of the producers should have put a stop to his humiliation.

Sadly, Michael Nyqvist is just as shticky and over-the-top as Schäfer, but at least he has a bit of license to chew the scenery as the psycho-Chester Molester. He was such an entertaining villain in John Wick. What the heck happened? Arguably, that question applies with even more force to Gallenberg, whose last feature was the sweeping yet sensitive John Rabe. Of course, it is hardly shocking to see Emma Watson’s Lena wilting on the screen. Yes, she was in those Harry Potter films, but are we really sure she’s lead material?

Presumably Colonia was shot in English to heighten its commercial appeal, but hearing all those German, Swedish, and British accents mixed and mangled together is more distracting than subtitled German. Let’s face it, everything about this film is misconceived. Seriously, do we really even need to revisit 1970s Chile yet again? As terrible as it was, Pinochet simply made a few thousand political opponents disappear, while Communist Pol Pot was torturing and killing an estimated twenty to thirty percent of Cambodia’s total population. However, he shared Allende’s ideology, so the media still under-reports the scale of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity. Colonia is more of the same, but with a stunningly offensive depiction of the ostensibly developmentally challenged. Absolutely not recommended, Colonia opens this Friday (4/15) in New York, at the Village East.