Permanent Chile

There is a moment when the stomach turns. Towards the fifth or sixth chapter of the series Colonia Dignidad. A German Sect in Chile, which the Netflix platform presents on its global channel, you see the face of the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt spoke so eloquently about in her writings: a man already in his sixties relaxes on a sofa placed on a theatrical stage. He rambles on as he pleases, loudly and addressing no one, like a bored official in a secret prison who makes room for himself in the midst of the filth to talk about his pathological taste for humiliating the children around him at that moment, while at the back of the stage a young man desperately tries to get notes out of a piano.

The scene is absurd, no doubt. Not because of the contrast between the old man on the sofa and the children around him on the floor, but because of the natural way in which he tells his adventures in the universe of pedophilia. Homeland, Family, and Property are present. The man is the permanent uncle, as Paul Schäfer was known, a German who escaped to Chile in the sixties due to accusations of sexual abuse in his country of origin, and creator of the German enclave that for fifty years profited from the impunity granted by the Chilean State’s to create a kingdom of its own, governed by its own rules on education, marriage, sex, work, religion and art, one of whose strengths was precisely photography and the recording of everything that happened in the so-called Colonia Dignidad.

The boys were blonds and brunets. And the girls were never favorites, unless they aspired to be nurses. The kids with blond hair were the children of the colonists who accompanied Schäfer from Germany, and the dark-haired kids were from the poor families from the area who, faced with economic, educational or health problems, entrusted the care of their children to the colony. The German enclave gladly accepted them, with the simple condition that they would not come back to pick them up or bother them. Thus the Colony was built: houses, orchards, barns, a hospital, a swimming pool, a theater, prisons, private cabins for illustrious visitors, controlled entertainment and discipline in every detail, a Youth Day, a Marching Day, a Singing Day, all dressed in shorts and Tyrolean style, except for Paul Schäfer who harangued them in German or in a Spanish with slurred R’s: men and women, children and adults infantilized alike, playing and singing happily, obedient, asexual, sequestered in a mental time ambiguously located between childhood and adolescence, on the verge, one might say, praying to God in the mornings and sleeping with the devil at night, subjected to the whims of the permanent uncle with the regularity of a rite of filiation.

This is what Netflix’s six-episode miniseries, a Chilean-German production directed by Wilfried Huismann and Annette Baumeister, shows. With 400 hours of footage to be edited and dramatic choices adjusted to the inquiry of a reality only half-investigated, the series exhibits an archival material with shocking ramifications.

Images of Pinochet in tears in front of the children who sing in his presence, and the use of the Colony as an arms factory during the Popular Unity period, come to light thanks to the tenacity of Chilean documentary filmmaker Cristián Leighton, creator of the original project and who researched for years the tapes of this eventual archive when it was not yet known to exist and some of the protagonists of the series, such as Schäfer himself and his finance minister, Kurt Schnellenkamp, were still alive. Because Schäfer had ministers: of war and peace, such as Roberto Thieme, former head of the ultra-right Patria y Libertad group, who made the Colony one of his centers for terrorist operations to sabotage Allende’s government; of foreign affairs, such as Hernán Larraín, who made Schäfer’s defense a state policy until today, when he holds the position of Minister of Justice and Human Rights in the Chilean government; of interior and internal order, such as Manuel Contreras, head of the political police during the dictatorship and who had his own cabin inside the Colonia. In short, undersecretaries and service chiefs abounded with different disguises of bonhomie. One feel as if one has to cry or laugh, depending on how fond one is of the Chilean right wing and its many twists and turns in the air. Because one of the absolute virtues of the Netflix series is not only to show Schäfer’s chronic pedophilia but also, in a less direct but more significant way, the protection that the Colony enjoyed from the permanent Chile, as filmmaker Raúl Ruiz once defined that structure of power that so precisely outlines the national character. Cronyism, neck-and-tie gangs, families united by secrecy and ideological corruption are behind the images that link this permanent and venal Chile with crime, the disappearance of people, the rape of children, the treatment of adults as slaves, the prohibition of sex, religious fanaticism and, in short, the total impunity of a sect that hijacks the power of the State with the complicity of the State itself.

Narrated by Salo Luna, a child-symbol of the Colonia at first and later an escapee who gave an account of what he suffered, saw and heard inside the enclave, the series presents him as the central figure of the traumatic narrative at stake. Luna is the true witness, willing to give his life for the truth he has to tell in an event exposed to trial and litigation. In front of him he has the others, the false witnesses or the not entirely repentant settlers who must pretend what everyone knew and excuse their personal responsibility. This is another great merit of the series, together with the wealth of the documentary archive: to show, on the one hand, the determination of the one who escaped and survived, and therefore is risking his life with his solitary testimony in a hostile environment; and, on the other hand, the impossible innocence adopted by the settlers, victims and victimizers at the same time, who speak of an evil they claim to ignore in the name of good.

In the end, it is they and not Schäfer who are the best kept secret of Colonia Dignidad. The enslaved colonists, the disciplined nurses, the young people with their caretakers- aunts, all infantilized in their behavior and sequestered in their adult behavior as eternal children of a guarded freedom, turned into spies and informers of a megalomaniacal figure who believed to be the Führer of a new society, are the ones who reveal the true drama of the Colonia. And that is none other than having been, since its origin and foundation, the felicitous copy of the permanent Chile that gave it shelter and protection. It was the twisted ideology of a nationality that made the history of the country and the advent of the dictatorship coincide with the inner paths of the Colonia. Such is the story of the series. Neither Schäfer nor his half-century long reign would have been possible without the naturalness of treatment with which that Chile gave so much freedom to the enclave’s activities. As in a mirror, its leading sectors looked at themselves in Colonia Dignidad, flattered by a familiar reflection that show them a lie turned into reality. It was a perfect dream world: healthy, hard-working, religious, on its knees. The dictatorship pushed that dream to the point of nightmare, and the mirror image bowed, ready to serve, grateful in its condition of felicitous copy in a remote southern estate.

Roberto Brodsky (b. Santiago de Chile, 1957). Writer, university professor, scriptwriter, critic, and author of op-eds. His novels include The Worst of Heroes [El Peor de los Héroes] (1999), The Art of Being Silent [El Arte de Callar] (2004), Burnt Forest [Bosque Quemado] (2008), Poison [Veneno] (2012), Chilean House [Casa Chilena] (2015), and Last Days [Últimos días] (Rialta Publishing House, 2017). He lived for over a decade in Washington, working as an associate professor at Georgetown University. He has lived for long periods in Buenos Aires, Caracas, Barcelona and Washington DC. In mid-2019 he moved to New York.


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