In Mitigation: Colonia/The Colony (2015)

‘The Colony’ was a film that got some attention because of it making a mere £47 at the UK office, so it must be terrible, right? Although as Benjamin Lee of the Guardian explains, it wasn’t released in a way that lent itself to cinema viewing. Also, it’s standing at a Metacritic rating of 33% and 26% at Rotten Tomatoes so the whiff is strong with this one. I thought that I’d give it a try as its subject, the overthrow of the democratically elected Salvador Allende, still has reverberations to this day.

Naomi Klein identifies the neoliberal onslaught as having been incubated under the subsequent Chilean leader, General Pinochet in early 70s Chile. The USA backed and facilitated this overthrow after much tampering: Nixon: “Make the economy scream“, subsequently propping up Pinochet’s regime too, as thousands got murdered, tortured, “disappeared”. Chile, in return for British backing, was a rare South American country who supported the UK in its Falklands War against Argentina in the early 80s, a war which pulled Thatcher away from seemingly inevitable defeat in the UK’s next General Election thus facilitating a further five years of Thatcher in tandem with Ronald “Mad Dog” (McDonald) “Ray-Gun” Reagan. The USA complaining about supposed Russian influence in their own 2016 election when no one’s been more prone to stomping on other countries than the United States. Et cetera

But the film. What’s the film like? Is it any good? Is it worth seeing? I’d argue that it’s well worth seeing. It is a deeply flawed film but some movies, once they get out of the cinema/DVD cycle and start to settle, can look very interesting, even if filled with mis-steps and poor judgements.

The ‘one sheet’ above is, I think, the image for the German speaking market but it trades heavily on Emma Watson: photoshopping both her dome, to a much bigger size, and her perfect complexion. I’ve never read a Harry Potter book nor seen a Harry Potter film so I’ve never had any axe to grind against Watson nor any strong approbation. At least, that is, until I saw ‘The Bling Ring‘ and was shocked by how much I enjoyed it. It’s an hour and a half long: another ten minutes in the company of such vacuous, empty characters, people who I’d have next to no time for in real life, and I think that I’d have snapped, my patience shattered, and I’d have turned against the movie but Coppola kept things under such tight control that I was hooked the whole way though.

Someone once gave me static for saying that I hated ‘The Social Network’; that I thought that Rooney Mara’s character was the only real human being in the story and that I hated Zuckerberg and Facebook. I was bored throughout and couldn’t care less. The retort was ‘well, why did you watch it, then?’. Well, because good films can still be made about bellends. I’ve got no time for Apple or for a seemingly horrible human being like Steve Jobs either, and computers bore me, but I found Danny Boyle’s movie ‘Steve Jobs‘ to be one of the most compelling works of the last few years. The acting; the direction; the writing; the editing: all of it kept me rapt. With ‘The Bling Ring‘, Coppola managed to keep me interested in these thieves, these clowns: I constantly wanted to know what happened next. The film poked lots of fun at these people – it’s a very humorous work – and Watson was just superb. So, how would she fare in a film about fascist violence rather than magic or lame, celebrity-obsessed, chumps?

One of Colonia’s big criticisms is that old device of being set in a non-English speaking country and yet everyone speaks English, even when one native is talking to another native on their native soil. It’s a tired motif. I’ll write about this more another time – many a mainland European actor has learned a language for another film and, hey, if you want to reach the widest possible demographic, Cantonese and Spanish are more widely spoken than English – and it is annoying, but you ‘tune it out’ if you can, like finding yourself sitting on a bus next to someone who smells. You don’t keep worrying about it, you just accept it for what it is. I did wonder, though, what Daniel Brühl thought about it all?

Brühl’s got a Spanish Mum, a German/Brazilian father; was born in Barcelona; raised in Cologne; and can speak Portuguese, German, English, French, Spanish and Catalan. Brühl can do accents as well. Here, he pulls out some received pronunciation, so attuned is his ear, to put him on the same level as Watson’s voice. I think that’s also why people are a little sniffy regarding Emma. To British ears, received pronunciation connotes phoney-baloneyness but, for some, that really is how they speak; it’s not fake at all.

The film wasn’t clear but I think we’re supposed to see both Daniel Brühl and Emma Watson as German citizens. The film is German made, German financed and, although set in Chile, it has German subject matter but Brühl has to speak in received pronunciation English unless on his own, when he had the odd exchange with a Pinochet goon in Spanish.

I once asked Juliette Binoche about this zaniness, in one of those newspaper interviews where you send in questions, referring to her movie ‘Chocolat’: she’s French, in a French-set film but she has to speak English the whole time: didn’t she find it strange? She said no and that didn’t place much importance on it all, which I suppose makes sense. From the other perspective, being proficient in languages probably makes one feel like it ‘ain’t no thing’. Binoche herself is a walking example of a retort along the lines of actors’ accents. In 1992, her version of ‘Wuthering Heights‘ led to her getting criticism for her English but she got an almighty last laugh when, starring alongside Ralph Fiennes again four years later, she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for ‘The English Patient’.

Both Watson and Brühl are fine, with what they have to work with, and they convince as a couple but the acting fire is really brought by a stupendous performance from Michael Nyqvist, he of the Swedish production of the ‘Millennium’ series of books/The Girl With…..films (seek out the six-part, nine hour TV version rather than the whittled down films). In that series, Nyqvist played the stand-up guy Mikael Blomkvist, in Hollywood – ‘John Wick’ or the fourth Mission Impossible film – he plays a psychopathic maniac. In ‘The Colony’, however, he goes further; keeping the psychopathic tendencies but adding sexual sadism and fascist collaboration into the mix. Looking unerringly like the true life character in question, one Paul Schäfer, with his long hair and piercing eyes, Nyqvist’s is a quite astoundingly vicious and terrifying character, when speaking soothingly or quietly or when shouting.

Essentially, we start as Emma Watson’s character comes into Santiago on a plane, while working as an airline stewardess. She spots her boyfriend, Daniel Brühl in a crowd of Allende supporters while at a rally and goes off with him on her stopover. D’oh! The overthrow occurs while she’s there (September 11th has a different meaning for Chileans: 1973) and they both have to leg it before the secret police come. They get nabbed while walking away as Brühl’s character can’t resist taking photographs of the public brutalisation inflicted by the army upon the political activists; socialists; union leaders; students in the street. It’s a terrifying, effective sequence, taking place in an environment looking very similar to the streets that one might have seen in Patricio Guzman”s epic, earth-shaking ‘La batalla de Chile‘ series.

From there – in traditional South American fascist style – they get bum-rushed into the biggest soccer stadium for them either to get freed the following day or murdered or taken away. In the dark of night, with lights from floodlights and a helicopter to further frighten and disorientate, someone with a John Merrick-style bag in his head, rats Brühl out to the Pinochet thugs and he gets taken away. Again, this whole sequence is so well done, giving you the feeling that anything could happen at any second. Watson’s let go the following day and wants to know where her boyfriend’s been taken. It’s from this point that the film shifts into a detective/sci-fi/prison/romance story as she learns about some craphole jail/camp/church/cult where he might have been taken, as a German citizen. It’s a place that’s under the auspices of Michael Nyqvist’s maniac ‘Paul Schäfer’ and, to get in, Watson goes down there as a potential worker: to see her love and hopefully bust him out.

Supposedly, Josef Mengele once sought refuge down there, at some point, and it drew official visits from Pinochet as well: a little German colony within Chile. I’d had the impression that a German/Bavarian presence in South America was a post World War II phenomenon but evidently it stretches back to the 19th century. I wish I knew more about South America. There was a great BBC documentary about Welsh settlers in the Chubat River region of Patagonia, southern Argentina recently, showing people speaking Spanish, Welsh and English, all with Argentine accents; Welsh flags in their homes and Welsh place names and family names too.

The film is well made. Leaving aside the language strangeness – as an aside, the director, Florian Gallenberger, won an Oscar for a short film and his first full length film was made entirely in Bengali with even the non-Bengali crew members receiving a crash course in the language. So, the polar opposite from Colonia’s perspective on native languages – it’s a film that gets its nuts and bolts correct. An escape scene engenders tension in all the right ways; of editing, of acting, of filming. Saying that – without trying to spoil things – another escape scene made me think of a laughably demented mash-up of ‘Argo’ with an episode of The Simpsons.

Films with deep problems can be endearing if one detects that its heart is in the right place and this rickety shambles is something I’d like to revisit if I ever see it playing on TV. One publication even called it grotesque to hang its story on the backdrop of the Pinochet outrage and I hear what they’re saying, but the film’s denouncement had me running for wikipedia to look up ‘Paul Schäfer’ and ‘Colonia Dignidad’ for myself. For all its tonal unevenness and mis-steps, I found ‘The Colony’ to be a useful add-on to the works of Patricio Guzman and Pablo Larraín and I’ll be seeking out more stories and commentary concerning this shameful episode in history.

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