A Place Called Dignity (2021) Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival 2021

November 12th, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Matias Rojas Valencia; Cast: Salvador Insunza, Hanns Zischler, Amalia Kassai, Noa Westermeyer, Tato Dubó, David Gaete, Leonie Wesselow; Chile/France/Germany/ Argentina/Columbia; 2021, 95 min.

The final years of the ‘Colonia Dignidad’ in Parral, Southern Chile are the subject of this spirited drama with its pervasive political undercurrents from Chilean writer/director Matias Rojas Valencia.

The former German Nazi soldier Paul Schäfer (1921-2010) founded a cult colony in 1961. Later, Schäfer supported General Pinochet, the latter’s opponents were tortured and killed in the colony. Schäfer was later accused of sexual abuse by 25 children, sentenced for several decades and fined 1.5 m$. He escaped to Argentina, but was extradited to Chile in 2006 and died in jail four years later. Colonia Dignidad – The True Story, a 2015 semi-documentary has covered some of the same ground as this feature film.

Pablo (Insunza), a twelve-year old local boy – whose father has deserted the family – is given a place in the school by ‘Uncle’ Paul (Zischler), the leader of the colony ‘Dignidad’. Pablo is very insecure, he urinates in public and is permanently taunted by the white boys, mostly Germans. Pablo shares a room with Rudolph (Westermeyer), who is Uncle Paul’s favourite, and can spend the night with him watching TV. Paul and his minions terrorising the teenagers, with regular sessions in the assembly hall, where the misfits are publicly punished. Paul is devious in his approach to the sexual assault victims.

Meanwhile Rudolph has never left the colony, and Pablo has to explain to him what traffic lights are, such is his naivety. Gisela (Kassai), who wants a child, tries her luck with Johannes (Gaete), copying the positions from a book about rhino procreation. Gisela is punished by being forced to wear a white jumper, the sign of a ‘wrong-doer’. White is the theme that runs through house: the huge piano is gleaming white, with a German shepherd languidly stretched out on top.

Inmates disappear regularly from the tightly guarded compound. And soon Pablo will replace Rudolph as Uncle Paul’s sex object. Paul making sure that Pablo wins a race against other boys, declaring him the new ‘sprinter’, an honourable position, even though the other boys, protest, that Pablo is ‘only’ an indigenous boy.

Christmas is still celebrated despite the evil goings-on – but instead of Father Christmas, a ghostly, devil like creature with two horns appears (Johannes in disguise, to make up for transgression). Pablo has enough of being molested, in a dream sequence, his mother visits him, lying in an open coffin. Pablo takes this as a sign and talks Rudolph into joining him in a escape bid, but Paul’s henchmen are alert.

DoP Benjamin Echazarreta creates a startling visual environment that really brings to life the pervading atmosphere of deceit and repression. The dream sequences are fantastic but the the director never neglects politics: in 1989 Paul and a visiting army officer openly discuss the possible implication of Pinochet losing the approaching referendum. Paul is full of angst, but the officer tells him to be hopeful: The dictator will watch out for them even if defeated. Crucially, the film reminds us how Nazi torturers became active after WWII and continue to influence the South American continent to this day – Barby and Mengele being only the tip of the iceberg. AS

TALLINN BLACK NIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL | 12-28 NOVEMBER 2021

 

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