The moment of the arrest was captured on camera: Men with PFA (Policia Federal Argentina) emblazoned in yellow on the backs of their flak jackets ran from a van and surrounded a single-storey villa in a rural a suburb south of Buenos Aires. A voice off-screen shouts: “Bajen las armas. Calma! Calma” — put down your weapons. Calm, calm. A group of four officers then pound the front door in with a battering ram and disappear inside.
The house belongs to a man called Peter Schmidt and he is harbouring a wanted man who has been on the run for nine years. After handcuffing Schmidt, police move down the hallway to a bedroom. And that’s where they find their unlikely looking fugitive: fer, Paul Schaefer an 84-year-old German man wanted in Chile for unspeakable crimes.
Right now, he’s laying on a single bed wearing a pair of beige trousers, a white collared shirt, and grey V-neck sweatshirt. He lets out an audible sigh. “Por Que?” he asks. Why?
In 1996, Schaefer had fled child sex abuse charges in Chile, and in 2004, just a year before his dramatic arrest, he was tried in absentia and found guilty. But there was more. Much more.
As he was pushed in a wheelchair past the baying press pack back at the police station, a journalist asked him specifically about “Colonia Dignidad,” the commune he’d led for the past 40 years in the foothills of Chile’s central valley. But Schaefer, frail, pale, like a deer in headlights, just blinked at the camera lights flashing around him and said nothing.
The truth was this: Colonia Dignidad, initially established as an immigrant community by a group of Germans after World War II to celebrate their language and culture, was taken over by Schaefer, a former Nazi, in 1961 shortly after he arrived in Chile. In four decades he turned the harmless, if eccentric, agricultural community into an isolated cult, with watchtowers and weapons. His almost-Messianic status within the group meant his abuse of children would go unchallenged.
What’s more, Schaefer also struck a deal with Chilean president Augusto Pinochet — the ruthless dictator who ruled Chile between 1974 and 1990. Pinochet would send dissenters to Colonia Dignidad to be imprisoned and tortured, an episode to which German diplomats working in the Chilean embassy turned a blind eye.
Now a new film starring Emma Watson attempts to shed renewed light on this dark chapter in Chilean history. Colonia - retitled The Colony in the UK - intertwines the fictional account of two young lovers caught up in the 1973 military coup that propelled Pinochet to power, with the true story of Colonia Dignidad.
When Daniel (played by German actor Daniel Brühl) is abducted by Pinochet's secret police, Lena (Watson) sets about trying to find him, eventually tracing him to the cult. But to rescue him, she must join Schaefer’s dangerous sect.
Colonia Dignidad began as a utopian experiment. Its residents, wearing traditional dress (lederhosen, hats, headscarves), and cut off from the outside world, lived in a Bavarian-style village and worked in mills, factories, farms — even a hospital that the community built.
According to Peter Siavelis, an expert in Chilean politics at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, this wasn’t so unusual in that part of Chile. Even today there are a number of communities where people still speak German and celebrate German customs. “It even looks like Germany,” Siavelis says. “It’s astounding.”
Siavelis says Colonia Dignidad was founded in the mid Fifties as an educational society to promote and preserve German culture, language, and education. “Eventually it turned into this very sort of creepy, closed bunker in south central Chile that housed some pretty unsavoury individuals.”
The Rettig Report, released after an investigation into human rights abuses by the Pinochet dictatorship, found evidence Colonia Dignidad was used as a torture camp and housed political detainees from 1973. “There were hundreds of torture camps that have been well documented,” Siavelis says, “And Colonia Dignidad was one of them.”
Every utopian community must have a leader, and for the vast majority of its existence, Colonia Dignidad’s was Paul Schaefer. He was born in 1921 in Troisdorf, just south of Cologne, became an evangelist preacher, but was fired from an early job as a church youth leader following an allegation he had abused young boys under his watch.
He then started an orphanage but an arrest warrant was issued after the mother of two boys claimed he molested them. Before he could be captured, a chance meeting with the then-Chilean ambassador to Germany (who wasn’t privy to information about Schaefer’s nefarious past) invited him to relocate to Chile.
Schaefer took with him some of his faithful from Germany and it didn’t take long for him to solidify control of Colonia Dignidad. Members of the group began adopting Chilean children from poor local families - giving Schaefer a seemingly endless supply of victims.
Followers would confess their sins to Schaefer, who they described as a Christ-like figure, referring to him as Der Permanente Onkel (The Permanent Uncle). But he was an unlikely looking Messiah: he had long grey hair and a glass eye (after an accident with a fork when he was younger, caused by using it to untie his shoelaces).
Members lived together in dormitories; they were allowed few personal possessions; Schaefer controlled relationships, and who was allowed to marry who. Newborn babies were taken from their mothers and raised by "nurses" known as aunts. Men were made to work in the mills and plants; women in the stables, kitchens, and hospital.
Claudio Salinas, the author of a book on Colonia Dignidad, appeared in a Spanish-language documentary about the sect in 2007, directed by Jose Maldavsky. In it, he said because everybody thought it was a charitable organisation, Schaefer’s abuse was allowed to continue under the radar, under successive political regimes.
Impoverished Chileans from the surrounding area were given free medical treatment in the group’s hospital. And thanks to government subsidies, it was allowed to flourish.
Heinz Kunz, an ex-settler who left the group in the Eighties, told Maldavsky: “I can’t begin to tell you how hard he made me work…. 12 hours straight with nothing but bread or tea.”
One lawyer representing some of Schaefer’s victims called it a form of slavery. There were dogs, trained to hunt escapees; sensors hidden under rocks and leaves surrounding the property which set off alarms should anyone breach the barbed wire perimeter. Youngsters were given sedatives to control them.
When police eventually raided the compound in 2005, they found machine guns, grenades, surface-to-air missiles, and rocket launchers - illegal, military grade firepower stashed away on behalf of the Pinochet regime.
They also found devices more at home in a James Bond movie: a walking stick which fired bullets; cameras that shot darts. And evidence of sarin gas, manufactured by DINA, the Chilean secret police, used to assassinate Pinochet’s opponents. As recently as 2008 investigators found mass graves at Colonia Dignidad; they found buried cars, their license plates later traced to missing political dissidents.
Pinochet died in 2006 aged 91 while awaiting trial, before he could account for his atrocities. Schaefer was extradited back to Chile and a year later, in 2006, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing 25 children. He died of heart failure, aged 88, just five years into his sentence.
Today, Colonia Dignidad is still there, and many of the same people who lived under Schaefer’s rule live on the property. It’s changed its name - to Villa Baviera - and has become a bizarre tourist destination celebrating its German heritage. Bavarian music is piped from speakers, there are restaurants, and animals to pet. It can also be rented out as a wedding venue.
“Its current leaders insist it's a cultural institution,” professor Siavelis says. “And that it’s now an open society - residents can come and go, children can study. But if you ask an average Chilean who is not a Pinochetista, Colonia Dignidad or Villa Baviera have tremendously negative connotations. And I’m not sure who is actually visiting this place.”
Writer and psychotherapist Torsten Wenzel heard about Colonia Dignidad in the late 1980s from a television documentary in his native Germany and it inspired him to write the screenplay that would become Colonia. Once he had a draft, he found out the home address of German film director Florian Gallenberger (who had won an Oscar in 2001 for his short film Quiero ser) and sent him a copy.
Wenzel says Gallenberger called him to tell him he liked it; that in fact he’d been thinking about Colonia Dignidad as a subject for some time, but hadn’t found a way to tell the story in a way people could identify with. Wenzel wrote several new drafts and eventually met with Gallenberger in person in 2009.
Gallenberger says Schaefer is a monstrous character. “His abuse rate was unbelievable. He left Germany in 1951 but he had been abusing kids until the very last day he was in the country.” Gallenberger says Colonia Dignidad’s residents were so isolated - “they didn’t have radios, newspapers, even watches. There was only one rule and that was Paul Schaefer’s rule,” he says, and in the time he was in charge he developed a system whereby he could brain wash and torture the community more and more.”
For his research, Gallenberger visited Villa Baviera on several occasions. “Today there are about 150 people living there,” he says, “some of them so heavily traumatised they would have a very hard time living in the outside world.
“Physically, it’s the same place: the same buildings with the same ceilings and tiles on floor. You know exactly what happened in those rooms and yet you’re listening to Bavarian folk music and eating Bavarian food.”
Gallenberger accompanied Emma Watson on a visit to research her character, where she was shown around by former cult members. “We were standing in what was then Paul Schaefer’s bedroom,” Gallenberger says. “They told us where the furniture was, and the bed, told us what Schaefer did. And it was very painful to hear. I asked what happened to the furniture. He hesitated for a moment then said his parents were sleeping in it now. People had been abused in that bed for 40 years and he said they were proud to be sleeping in it.”
Gallenberger says it showed the level of brainwashing sect members endured: “Their identity crushed through 40 years of isolation. There were some moments I couldn’t believe what I was hearing - that really questioned what it meant to be human,” he says.
In April, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier ordered documents about the colony to be declassified. He also expressed regret that his country's diplomats failed for years to act on the abuses.
Chris Nagy has lived at Villa Baviera for the past eight years. His wife, Renate Schnellenkamp, was born there, back when it was Colonia Dignidad. On the phone from Chile, Nagy tells me why residents there decided to keep the community going after Schaefer’s arrest and prosecution.
“It’s different now,” he says. “It’s not like it used to be. People get salaries, they can leave when they want. There are no obligations. There are also no secrets - and it’s open to the public. Tourism is good right now.”
The people of Villa Baviera, he says, choose to live together in a “wholesome environment and show the world a different face.” He describes life there under Schaefer as a “terrible time” but insists nobody there knew what was happening - other than Schaefer’s inner circle. “Most people were kept under 24-hour surveillance and had no clue what was going on,” he says.
I ask whether those that remain there are still suffering. “From the trauma?” he says. “Definitely. “A lot of people have psychological problems - and health problems from the hard work they were made to do. The routine was very tough and they suffered a lot.”
Nagy says some of them are still being treated by psychiatrists and are on medication. Most of them don’t talk openly about what happened there. “But it’s a lot better right now,” he says. “Because they’re free.”
The Colony is on release now
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