The Colony is an edge of your seat thriller set against the backdrop of the infamous Colonia Dignidad in Chile during the 1970’s (check out our review here). The atrocities surrounding the Colonia have been well-documented in the past, but thanks to director Florian Gallenberger’s film, new evidence has come to light which might just see some of those past wrongs finally being righted. With the Oscar-winning director in town for the Edinburgh International Film Festival, we managed to sit down with him to discuss his new film and the events that inspired it.
When did you first hear about the Colonia case and what inspired you to make a film about it?
I heard about it the first time I was in school when I was nine years old, in 1981, because we had a teacher who showed us a TV report on the Colonia Dignidad. I was a small boy, and I remember so well how I was so angry about what I saw. So I went home and said to my mother: “There is this place in Chile and there are these people who have to stay there; they can’t leave and they have to work and that is very unfair and unacceptable.’’ And somehow, this reaction stayed with me so when I heard about it again, immediately I was emotional. When I started to research I discovered it was a universe. It’s 37 years; it’s a cult; it’s political connections; it’s horrible things that happened; it’s the German embassy that’s been protecting or covering up or turning a blind eye. There is so many things involved; and that was the moment I thought surely there must be a story in there somewhere. Then I went to Chile six years ago for the first time, and over the course of four years I became friendly with a handful of younger members [of the colony). It took a couple of years for them to trust me and tell me everything that happened, and in that sense it was really discovering the trip about Colonia.
I understand it’s had an impact with the German government as well…
Six weeks ago the German minister of foreign affairs screened the movie in the ministry for diplomats and politicians, and gave a speech afterwards. We turned the attitude totally around from trying to hide everything, to them opening the archives and trying to find out why it happened, and how it happened so we could apologise or compensate….
The film uses Colonia as a backdrop for an intense, nail biting thriller. That being said, it also provides some food for thought as a contemporary political allegory. Would you say you wanted to highlight just how much power can corrupt?
What I would want people to take from the film is that they see what happens when people stop thinking or themselves, or judging for themselves, and just follows. Now in Germany we have a big history of leader and followship, and it turned out to be the biggest catastrophe in all of mankind you could say. But one can never stop reminding people of the dynamics that something like this has. I think there are tendencies around the world now where a people are craving the strong leadership, and to me that’s very frightening. Whether I’m thinking of Putin, or Donald Trump, or Hungary, or Poland, or Slovakia, it’s really mindboggling how people want to make their lives easier by giving the authority the responsible for decisions they should make themselves.
In your opinion, what makes a good thriller?
What came to my mind now is that you’re so involved in what’s happening in the story that you’re in there. You want to look away but you can’t look away. It pushes you to the edge of your seat. What I personally like is if that’s not the only dimension of how the film works. If it’s like that… great. If you find out afterwards that it told you something else that you didn’t know about, then I think the entertainment was for a reason. It was always my aim to combine these elements. Why can’t it entertain and give something to the audience? That is what I was going for.
Emma Watson’s performance was a particular highlight. Did you always have her in mind for the part?
In the beginning, we planned to do this as a German film. with German actors and German language, and then it turned out that the size of the film that the financing we couldn’t raise from Germany alone. Then we realised that there is a dimension to the story that’s bigger than just Germany, so we decided to shoot the film in English. Emma was top of the list, as there were two things that were important for this part. The first is someone who you believe has a strong inner conviction; a strong person inside, but still a fragile person on the outside. I wanted a female hero who has a different type of strength, and that’s totally Emma Watson. She’s so convinced about the things that she’s fighting for, and she’s a very fragile, beautiful woman. The Colonia, to me, has always been a place of darkness, and I always wanted someone who radiates a certain brightness. That’s like magic, that’s what Emma does; if she’s in the frame, you just look there. She has the quality of a lamp. So I wanted to bring this bright, fragile character with a lot of inner conviction into this world of darkness to face this system. We had a casting agent here in London who was very helpful, then we got the script to her and she liked the material.
What’s next for you?
You always have a couple of ideas, like horses that are running and you’re wondering which horse is going to make it. There is a project on a biblical character, which is a journey into another world, which I love to do. There’s another which is a completely different direction, which is a sex comedy with German characters. The financing is always the eye of the needle that you have to go through.
Many thanks to Florian Gallenberger for taking the time for this interview.
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