A new documentary series delves into the history of Colonia Dignidad and those involved in the infamous town, but fails to say anything new. Situated in the south of Chile, the colony was a cult-like community led by Paul Schäfer, a preacher with ties to the Pinochet regime. The series showcases footage filmed by the residents, showing the inner workings of the colony.
“A Sinister Sect: Colonia Dignidad,” Netflix’s latest documentary series, focuses on life inside the colony and the ways in which its leaders avoided scrutiny. The Colony was originally created as a safe haven for German immigrants, but Paul Schäfer’s leadership transformed its residents into a cult that aided him in covering his sexual abuse of children. In response to Salvador Allende’s rise to power, Schäfer transformed the colony into a fortress that smuggled weapons from Germany to assist the 1973 coup, and then converted it to a torture center for DINA, Pinochet’s secret police.
When the colony was first established in 1961, its members wanted to document their early days to encourage the immigration of future members. This chilling never-before-seen footage doesn’t add anything new we didn’t already know about the town, but it brings viewers closer to what life was like in the cult and it is also a revealing look at the propaganda effort to grow the colony.
A well-known story
Colonia Dignidad has been the focus of numerous books, movies, TV shows, and documentaries. This amount of over-exposure to a subject tends to overshadow future projects unless they find a way to stand out by either providing a new perspective or previously-unknown information.
The documentary is divided into six episodes, each one focusing on a specific time period. The first covers Paul Schäfer’s founding of the congregation in Germany and his escape from Europe after he was convicted for sexually assaulting minors. The episode ends with his arrival in Chile and his land purchase that would later become Colonia Dignidad.
The second shows the first arrivals from Germany, their efforts to transform the rocky terrain into suitable farmland, and the first accusations against Schäfer for pedophilia which ultimately resulted in his arrest and conviction. Next, it delves into the colony’s role in smuggling weapons for far-right paramilitary groups and helping set up the military coup in 1973.
The second half of the documentary addresses the colony’s role as a torture facility during the dictatorship as well as Schäfer’s friendship with Pinochet. Last but not least, it covers the return to democracy and Schäfer’s escape to Argentina once he was unable to keep prying eyes away from the colony.
The main narrator throughout the six episodes is Salo Luna, a Chilean born near the Colony who started participating in many of the youth activities offered inside Colonia Dignidad when he was 8-years-old. Luna eventually became the spokesperson for the colony’s youth chapter. In that role, he spent a lot of time with Schäfer and discovered what was truly going on.
By the time Salo was 15, he realized that Schäfer had sinister designs, and when Schäfer tried to coerce him into spending the night, Luna rejected him and started helping the investigations against Schäfer.
The other constant narrators in the documentary are Willi Malessa and Edeltraud Bohnau, two Germans who were among the first to arrive and who subsequently fell in love with each other. They both talk about day-to-day life in the colony from its beginnings in 1961 to the day Schäfer left, and how difficult it was for them to be together because relationships were prohibited in the colony.
While these are the main narrators, numerous other people give their own accounts of their own experiences in the colony.
Two interviews of note are Kurt Schnellenkamp, the co-founder of the colony who seeks forgiveness for his role in hiding Schäfer from authorities; and Roberto Thieme, a far-right paramilitary leader who helped smuggle weapons into the colony and helped Schäfer contact military leaders while they were planning the Sep. 11, 1973 coup.
Also watch this Al Jazeera documentary on Colonia Dignidad
Another character of interest is Wolfgang Kneese, a young German boy who was among the first settlers of the colony. He escaped Schäfer’s clutches in 1967 and then alerted authorities to what was going on in the colony, but these efforts fell flat when Schäfer was declared innocent, Kneese was convicted of slander, and Kneese fled to Germany.
Gustavo Torres, an agricultural worker who grew up on the land next to Colonia Dignidad, recalls his father’s early dealings with the colony, its shady practices, and how, despite the numerous complaints from the locals, the authorities never investigated it.
Lastly, there is Luis Henríquez, a PDI agent who oversaw the case against Schäfer in the early 1990s. He recounts the difficulty in arresting Schäfer’s due to his connections in the Chilean courts, which tipped him off whenever authorities were trying to arrest him.
One of those connections is the current minister of Justice and Human Rights, Hernán Larraín. While he was a senator, Larrain went to the Colony to personally apologize to Schäfer for the investigations that were being run against him. When confronted with his appearance in the documentary Larraín said to 24 horas, “This doesn’t show anything that wasn’t previously known …. I stopped having contact with the people of the colony in 1997, I never had further contact and I asked for the harshest sanctions for those responsible for what happened.”
The documentary also includes statements by other members of the colony, the children who had been taken from the villages near the colony and grew up separated from their families, those tortured in the colony, and former DINA agents.
“Sinister Sect” doesn’t bring any new information, but the previously-unseen footage does offer a gripping glimpse of life inside the colony. It’s jarring to see the mundane life the Germans lived inside the colony but know the horrible truth behind the events. The effect is even more powerful when the images are coupled with actual voice recording of Schäfer. Beyond this footage, the documentary is pretty straightforward. It mixes the footage with the interviews of the subjects, and with Luna’s voice-over to fill in the gaps.
The documentary accomplishes what it set out to do, which is to show the inner workings of Colonia Dignidad, but it fails to show anything that is not already common knowledge. If this is a viewer’s first introduction to Colonia Dignidad, it will be eye-opening. For those familiar with the story, it will mostly be revisiting what they already know. Schäfer’s sexual abuse of children and his involvement with the human rights abuses of the dictatorship have been well-known for decades. As a result, this series doesn’t manage to separate itself from the other media that exists about the colony.
That said, it is nevertheless a chilling documentary that paints a vivid picture of the horrors of living in the colony and Schäfer’s skill in evading the authorities for so long.
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.