TRAUMA: The inhabitants of a small German colony in Chile once founded as a sectarian settlement, develop different narratives to cope with its grim and traumatic past.
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: April 12, 2020

It’s well-known now that the clandestine operation of ratlines — escape routes for #Nazis fleeing Europe after #World War Two# to hide from culpability — led to many war criminals and their sympathisers establishing new lives in #Latin America#. One especially sinister offshoot of fugitive relocation was the founding of sect colony #Colonia Dignidad# at the foot of the #Andes Mountains# by #Paul Schaefer#, a former corporal who left #Germany after being charged with child sexual abuse at the children’s home and Baptist ministry he ran there. The isolated settlement in #Chile, in which children were separated from their parents and subjected to beatings and abuse, collaborated with the brutal military dictatorship that came to power in the ‘70s under #Augusto Pinochet#, serving as a secret centre for the torture and extra-judicial killing of #dissidents. In its confluence of #pedophilia, #sadism, and outsourced #political persecution#, it’s difficult to imagine a more horrific place. But, rather than making a conventional documentary that stops at bearing witness to the cult’s criminality, or that sensationalistically milks its shock value, directing duo Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga achieve something remarkable in Songs of Repression, engaging with the legacy of collective trauma among the 120 residents who still live in the colony, and pondering what escape from or peace with the past might mean for them, through their haunted testimonies and evasions. The sensitive, psychologically searching, and profound film was named winner of the DOX:AWARD at Copenhagen’s #CPH:DOX, a festival forced to move on-line due to #coronavirus.

Songs of Repression-MTR-Review-post1
Songs of Repression, a film by Estephan Wagner, Marianne Hougen-Moraga

Unsettlingly off

Songs of Repression provides us with facts about the development of the colony and the nature of its power abuses in the form of intertitles throughout, but as we’re taken inside daily life in the settlement (now renamed Villa Baviera), the sun-dappled outward tranquility of the location with its flourishing gardens, beehives, and agriculture is jarring. So, too, with the inhabitants, whose amiable, breezy demeanours exude a practiced detachment that feels unsettlingly off. Their psyches, we soon realise, are at great pains to overcome the internalised belief system and deflected blame of their #indoctrination, even as they freely recall that singing lessons as children could end in broken jaws. Some still profess allegiance to the religious teachings of Schaefer, who was arrested in 2005 and died in prison, saying they are «grateful for those values» he instilled, and the ability to discern between good and evil; others say that after some years they were able to think critically and recognise what they endured as abuse. It still repeats in their dreams, some say. One man says he cannot stand to hear the word «community» anymore. A woman, now married and content with her choice of husband yet unable to enjoy sex with him, is genuinely surprised to hear that it’s an act some associate with love.

In its confluence of pedophilia, sadism, and outsourced political persecution, it’s difficult to imagine a more horrific place.

Recognition of wrongdoing and culpability is made thornier by the blurring of lines between victims and perpetrators, in a colony where members were required to spy upon each other, and take an active role in the group structures of violence. At any rate, health problems are rife in the community, bodies unfailingly carrying the #trauma that conscious minds can, to a lesser or greater extent, acknowledge. «We can’t handle so much now,» says one woman. She’s referring to work and the aftermath of a lifetime of physical farm labour — but the burden of a greater resilience hangs unspoken around the admission.

A lingering legacy

The members of the colony, where German is still spoken, were originally recruited from #evangelical churches in Germany. Some of the co-founders still live in Villa Baviera’s nursing home. The colony is today run by children of the «hierarchs,» who were Schaefer’s high-ranking deputies. They speak of plans to forge greater connections with the outside world in the decade to come. #Tourism has already assisted the settlement, not only financially, but in fostering an image of increased openness and transparency (the choir now performs for the eyes of visitors, who arrive by the busload and whose intentions strike one as questionably voyeuristic, and as such not conducive to real healing). But the legacy of the place lingers in suspicious looks from behind curtains as the most critically outspoken speak their minds to camera. After Schaefer was imprisoned the hierarchs organised a collective «forgiving ceremony» for the community in an attempt to speedily brush the atrocities under the carpet. The participation of members in the enforced disappearance of activists under Pinochet is discussed only later in the film and comes as a devastating, clear bell toll of the absolute malevolence of fascism and totalitarian structures of abuse amid the psychic fog of brains desperately trying to normalise or assimilate into understanding all they had, tragically, ever known.