Toronto Film Review: ‘Colonia’

'Colonia' Review: Emma Watson, Daniel Bruhl

Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl get caught up in the terror of Chile's 1973 military coup in this risibly hyperbolic thriller.

Colonia” starts out as something that’s frequently a bit dubious — the vaguely “based on true events” thriller thrusting fictive Western visitors into some exotic locale’s actual historical natural or political disaster, which they then try to flee — before turning into something else entirely. Something reminiscent of 1970s women-in-prison and Italian Nazisploitation movies. Which is bizarre, because this hyperbolic suspenser starring Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl as European lovers in Central American really is inspired (however loosely) by very grim chapters of 1970s Chilean history. So why does “Colonia” recall that era’s most trashily lurid cinematic products than, say, Patrizio Guzman’s documentary epic “The Battle of Chile,” which is duly, almost sacrilegiously excerpted under the opening credits?

However earnest his intentions may have been, German director/co-scenarist Floran Gallenberger (“John Rabe”) serves up a ludicrous exercise in lower-end genre cliches that just might work as a glossy thrill ride for viewers oblivious to the actual events it haplessly trivializes. But with critical support unlikely, this borderline-hysterical potboiler is bound to struggle for a theatrical foothold in most territories, its salable elements ensuring better returns in ancillary.

The notion that any effort is going to be spent backgrounding characters or the milieu is dispelled right at the outset, as Lufthansa stewardess Lena (Watson) has barely deplaned a flight to 1973 Santiago before she spies boyfriend Daniel (Bruhl) busily saving the world from her airporter van. He’s a German artist-photographer who’s been here a few months, but has become embroiled in the movement supporting progressive President Allende. When the president is overthrown by military coup, Daniel finds himself identified as the leftists’ poster designer, and is hauled off by Pinochet’s forces. Lena figures out he’s been taken to Colonia Dignidad, an innocuous-sounding but much-feared pseudo-religious community compound 200 miles to the south, where it’s believed many political dissidents are tortured and killed.

Such is Daniel’s intended fate. But he survives his prolonged electroshock “interrogation” in the compound’s secret tunnel labyrinth and is assigned grunt labor as a presumed newly made “retard” in the above-ground realm of Colonia founder Paul Schafer (Michael Nyqvist). Schafer is a self-styled minister whose strictly gender-segregated farm/retreat no one apparently ever leave — if they try, electrified barbed-wire fences offer a powerful dissuasion.

Lena applies as a noviate, learning quickly that this supposed place of worshipful retreat is more like 60% concentration camp meets 40% Jonestown. Women are ruthlessly subjugated, and sometimes chosen for violent abuse at the evening “men’s gatherings.” Headmistress Gisela (Richenda Carey) hisses “You look like a slut” at our heroine (who’s dressed about as provocatively as Mary Poppins), then whips her when Lena has the nerve to almost faint from exhaustion during field work. Meanwhile, “Father” Schafer seems to have created a pederast’s paradise for himself, with his pick of young boys he’s had raised collectively, separated from their individual parents.

Despite all this mayhem, and the seemingly rigid discipline in daily operation, our leads seem to find loads of opportunities to sneak off together, plotting their escape. Eventually (after about 130 days which as played seem to pass in around five minutes) they attempt it, carrying damning evidence of the crimes here to alert the outside world. As if it weren’t already melodramatically hectic, “Colonia” at this juncture turns into a long, breathless chase that does not stint on miraculous last-second interventions of fate.

That sort of thing is fine for a “Taken” movie. But the approach seems glaringly false in a story about a real-life prison nightmare where life was evidently a bleak, soul-crushing misery — not one close-shave thrill after another. Strangely choosing not to directly articulate Colonia Dignita aka Villa Baviera’s actual Nazi ties (“Angel of Death” Josef Mengele was suspected to have lived there in hiding for a while), Gallenberger & Co. leave pic wide open to accusations of tasteless exploitation in depicting the place’s sadism, sexual perversion, misogyny and occasional lederhosen-wearing celebrations of Teutonic kitsch.

A different film might have tried to inhabit this hermetically sealed cult’s world of terror and absurdity. But “Colonia” feels so outside-looking-in that instead its effect is crassly sensational, the laughs not grotesque but unintentional ones. Perhaps the unfunniest thing here is the extent to which a two-hour drama triggered by brutal Chilean political suppression manages to downplay, even almost forget that element after its first reel. “The disappeared” disappear once more here, overshadowed by European marquee stars and pulpy thriller hokum.

The leads are given the thankless task of maintaining grim poker faces through scene after scene of high contrivance and cliche-ridden dialogue. As the principal monsters, Nyqvist and Carey do not transcend caricature. Tech and design-wise, “Colonia” is throughly pro if conventional, with a largely nocturnal color palette and urgent musical backing. Colony scenes were primarily shot in Luxembourg, which only heightens the project’s sense of excessive cultural removal from the events liberally fictionalized here, as does the fact that these Chileans and Germans constantly speak English — a suspension-of-disbelief convention one could accept if they didn’t, in a couple incongruous moments of linguistic realism, speak Spanish as well.

Toronto Film Review: 'Colonia'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 13, 2015. Running time: 100 MIN.


(Germany-Luxembourg-France) A Majestic and Beta Cinema presentation of a Majestic production in co-prduction with Iris Prods., Rat Pack Filmproduktion, Rezo Productions and Fred Films, in association with ProSieben and Sky. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Oberhaching.) Produced by Benjamin Herrmann. Executive producers, Rudiger Boss, Dirk Schurhoff. Co-producers, Nicolas Steil, Christian Becker, James Spring.


Directed by Florian Gallenberger. Screenplay, Torsten Wenzel, Gallenberger. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Kolja Brandt; editor, Hansjorg Weissbrich; music, Andre Dziezuk, Fernando Velazquez; music supervisors, Klaus Frers, Thomas Binar; production designer, Bernd Lepel; art director, Tobias Frank; sound, Carlo Thoss; sound designer, Frank Kruse; re-recording mixer, Bruno Tarriere; visual effects supervisor, Dominik Trimhorn; assistant director, Andreas Lang; casting, John Hubbard, Ros Hubbard.


Emma Watson, Daniel Bruhl, Michael Nyqvist, Richenda Carey, Vicky Krieps, Jeanne Werner, Julian Ovenden, August Zirner, Martin Wuttke, Cesar Bordon, Nicolas Barsoff, Steve Karier, Stefan Merki. (English, Spanish dialogue)

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  1. Alex says:

    The movie is not a genius work but it is defenetly no 30.
    I was born in germany and have seen a big amount of bad movies wich were produced here , but this one is not that bad.

  2. Matt Lane says:

    great movie, tense from beginning to end, excellent performances especially from Nyquist who is an absolute terror on screen. The two leads are ficticious, but all the details of Colonia are spot on exact. Don’t listen to Dennis, he’s just a hater.

    ‘”Colonia” at this juncture turns into a long, breathless chase that does not stint on miraculous last-second interventions of fate.’ — no more so than the end of Argo which Variety praised.

  3. Caesar Tjalbo says:

    My wife and I had a discussion about whether the word “enjoy” could be used given the subject matter of the film but apart from that we enjoyed the movie. We live in Chile and the only thing that sort of surprised us was the happy end. It held plenty of suspense and disgust and was mostly expertly done, with decent to good casting and acting.

    Recommended viewing outside Chile? I don’t know but it’s not half as bad as Variety’s review makes it out to be.

  4. John says:

    Kind of hard to take this review seriously. Regardless of how I feel about the film, this review feels like it’s out to get Colonia, with no attempt of bringing critical balance. But I bet it feels good to shame a movie to make yourself feel good. FWIW, this also coming from a guy who didn’t like this film.

  5. MaggieCatherine says:

    Spent a Saturday afternoon engrossed in this edge of your seat thriller. Difficult at times to watch I wanted to shut it off but became invested & needed to know the fate of our leading characters. The film did a good job drawing me in during the first 15 minutes. I felt 18 years old again … the music, the times were familiar. Loved the leading man (played by Daniel Bruhl), he reminded me of someone I knew back in the early ’70s. Emma Watson in her leading role was wonderful & I got a real kick out of the Lufthansa pilot. Many of the other characters are bad apples. The 2 hours went fast & all in all it was a very good film. After reading the critical review by Variety, I must say that I did not watch the film expecting a documentary or a movie where the political background & characters’ histories were thoroughly studied. What I was hoping for was a well acted, intriguing storyline. When one finds themselves crying, smiling, cheering for the good guys & appreciating the chemistry between characters all wrapped up in a visually appealing film, I’d say the production is a success.

  6. Salvador Allende is a “progressive”? Is that the word Variety uses for Marxist now?

    • cath says:

      The film may indeed be poor, but the review is barely literate Nor does its author appear to have access to a map. Chile in Central America? The previous comment also cogent: ‘Marxist’ is not an epithet but a descriptor, and would have been an accurate one, in this case. Hint to critics: if you want to expose a film’s flaws, it’s a good idea to catch and correct your own.

  7. Ariel Summerville says:

    1. Chile is in South America, not Central America
    2. The word thoroughly is misspelled
    3. It’s Florian, not Floran
    4. It’s Brühl, not Bruhl

  8. drew says:

    Sounds awful. And really just a film to provide another excuse to exaggerate Pinochet’s crimes (which pale compared to Hollywood’s love-Castro) and portray communist Allende as a tragic victim, who likely would’ve been even worse than Augusto was had there been no coup. Just like the communist Republicans would’ve been worse than Franco’s nationalists in Spain. Same Hollywood story, different day, this time with one of the Harry potter kids.

    • norbar says:

      As much As i dislike Castro you are grossly uneducated if you think Pinochet’s crimes pale in comparison to anyone including the worst of the worst.

  9. Drew Gars says:

    You said that two times. We get it.

  10. max says:

    Easily the worst film I’ve seen this year…quite an achievement. Horrible screenplay, directing, music and two wasted actors in the leads. B-Movie-DVD-Schlock.

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