“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.