QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
The year is 1989, just months before the end of the Pinochet’s sanguinary dictatorship, somewhere in the remote hinterlands of Southern Chile. The country dares to hope for freedom and democracy for the first time in two decades. Inside Colonia Dignidad, however, there is no visible sign of the end to the years of the institutionalised physical, psychological and sexual abuse to which staff and students are subjected.
This highly mysterious and secluded organisation is run by sadistic German preachers. They are under the purview of Pius (Hanns Zischler), who prefers being called Dauer Onkel, German for “permanent uncle”. There’s nothing pious and avuncular about the old foreigner. He invites his young male students to his bed late at night and forces them to undress. The actions of “permanent uncle” will leave a permanent scar on his young victims.
Twelve-year-old Pablo (Salvador Insunza) has just been “given” a scholarship to study at the institution. His parents are elated. They are convinced that education in a German school will vouch for a bright career. And they are blithely unaware of the mysterious deaths and disappearances at the Colonia, which the Pinochet’s regime has conveniently helped to conceal. A military officer reassures Pius that “order will prevail” and “they will win”. The country’s first lady Lucia Hiriart (Pinochet’s wife, still alive to this day) pays a visit to the establishment. The institution regularly sends tapes to the German Embassy, suggesting complacence or even collusion with the German authorities. A microcosm where Nazism and twisted Christian doctrine operate without constraints.
A Place Called Dignity is constructed like a horror movie, with dark and sombre cinematography, tense and stern dialogues, awkward moments of silence and austere camera movements. This raw aesthetic narrative reminded me a lot of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith (2012) and the documentary In the Basement (2014). There are also topical connections: Neo-Nazism and Christian mortification. The cruelty of the Germans is conspicuous. They consistently repeat their motto “Arbeiten heisst Gott dienen” (“working means serving God”) – which might ring some bells with those who have seen the sign at the entrance of Auschwitz. It is a widely-known fact that Nazis fled to South America (particularly Brazil, Argentina and Chile) after WW2. But this is the first time I heard of a Nazi expat commune in the continent. Colonia Dignidad was founded by a former Nazi soldier in 1961, and the organisation swiftly adapted and incorporated Nazi tactics into its operations.
Some of the Nazi-inspired “disciplinary” techniques are truly spine-chilling. Scary enough for people of all ages. Sex between consenting adults is reprimanded, and “sinners” are punished and humiliated in public, in one of the film’s most haunting scenes. Even Christmas becomes a terrifying ordeal as Santa Claus is suddenly replaced with Krampus (the horned monster who scares naughty children). The scene is so disturbing that adults too might pee in their pants. The happy world of Nazi souls. Kids and grown-ups fear it so.
Matias Rojas Valencia’s second feature film might also recall Pablo Larrain’s The Club (2016), about a real-life colony of paedophile priests in Southern Chile. However Valencia’s movie is far more evocative and soul-stirring. A small masterpiece of real and raw cinema.
Remarkably, A Place Called Dignity acquires an extra layer of significance as it premieres just days after the extreme-right wing party came first in the first round of presidential elections. Their candidate Jose Antonio Kast is himself the son of a Nazi soldier who migrated to Chile after WW2.
A Place Called Dignity has just premiered in Competition at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. The most powerful movie of the selection so far, and my very favourite to take the top prize.