With The Colony out now in cinemas and On Demand, we sat down with director Florian Gallenberger to discuss the internationally-produced tale of seventies cult leader Paul Schäfer, and one woman’s quest to free her beloved from his clutches.
Florian, thanks for joining us. What was it that drew you in particular to a project set in 1973 Chile?
I heard about it for the first time in school, when I was nine years old. As a boy I was so angry and so furious, because I understood that people had to leave there and couldn’t leave, and I told my mother “it’s so unfair”. Somehow this rage from my childhood came up again when I read about the colony six or seven years ago. I realised it still exists, and I realised that nothing had happened in all that time to deal with that subject. I thought that this is a story that needs to be told, and that people need to know about. I started to research, got more and more involved, and I couldn’t get away from it any more.
Was the death of Paul Schäfer in 2010, played by Michael Nyqvist in the film, something that helped get the film made?
I don’t think so; when we started out on the movie, he was still alive. He was in prison at that time. I think whether he’d died or was still alive, that wouldn’t have changed the chances of the movie getting financed. I think what helped, in Germany especially, is that it was a huge scandal in the seventies and early eighties. Politicians just didn’t deal with it, and the media was always so interested in the subject that we managed to stir up so much media interest that nobody could turn a blind eye to it any more. That really helped the project.
As well as directing, you’ve also co-written the film. What was the research process like for a project like this?
We spent four years in research. Six years ago, I went for the first time to Chile, to the Colonia Dignidad, which still exists – it’s called Villa Baviera now, Bavaria Village – and met the people and started to build up relationships, especially with a handful of the younger members of the cult. I’d say it took two to three years until they really started to trust me, and then they started to tell me what they really went through and what really happened in Colonia Dignidad. That was the breakthrough in the research, because I was sure that I knew now what to tell the audience, the truth about Colonia Dignidad. Those younger members – supporters of the movie – they have all left the cult by now, and some of them were with us on the making of the movie, as experts to tell us how things worked within the colonia, how people would dress, how people would talk, how they would stand and so forth.
What were the particular difficulties in filming a period-specific piece?
There were a lot of difficulties. Teaming up with different countries is great, but for the filming process it can be difficult. We had to shoot the biggest part of the movie in Luxembourg, then in Munich, then Berlin; it’s kind of a challenge to recreate South America in Luxembourg and Germany, and we had to split up many locations between those countries. That’s just leaving you – as the filmmaker – with the task to make it look like Chile in a completely different environment. And, of course, we were short on time. We were travelling a lot, so we were facing the problems a lot of filmmakers face – we were shooting under a lot of pressure. At the same time, it’s such a great experience, a group of people coming together and really fighting for the same thing. It was a difficult shoot, but at the same time it was such a great experience.
Daniel Brühl is someone who’s become an international commodity over the past three or four years. How integral was his casting to getting the film financed and greenlit?
Daniel was on board from the very first moment – when there were still plans for it to be a German film – he was already on board because he really cared about the subject. I’ve known him a very long time, we’re good friends, he was in my last movie as well. I think, for the financing, Daniel was a very helpful and crucial element, but the moment that Emma Watson came on board I think the movie really became an international one, and that was the moment that we really knew that we’d be able to make the movie.
How did Emma’s casting come about?
When we decided to shoot the film in English, we sat down and we made a wish-list of who would be perfect for the part. I always wanted someone who was fragile but strong inside. I think Emma is exactly that: she’s a beautiful, fragile woman, but with such an inner strength and conviction. I also wanted someone with a bright, radiant energy, because the colonia is such a dark place I wanted to see such a bright character enter that dark place. We put Emma on the top of that list, and I remember that we sat there and thought “well, how likely is that? That she’s going to take on a rather small German film?” but finally we decided to go for it. I remember very well how I got the call from her agent and he said she’d read the script, and she really liked the material. I know that two aspects were really important to her: that, in our film, she is an adult woman who makes a very brave choice – that’s something she’s not thought of as showing in her other movies, where she’s usually a teenage girl – and the other thing is that, in our movie, it’s the girl who rescues the man. I think that made the character especially interesting for her – if you look at her female empowerment work that she does for the United Nations – I think that the part was so attractive for her because it really correlated well with her personality. Emma is someone who prepares so thoroughly for her parts, I remember our first meeting where she was already asking so many questions that I could feel she’d really gotten interested. Working with her was great because she’s very intelligent, smart and such a quick thinker. She’s challenging because she’s always asking the right questions. I’m so happy that she took the part.
Obviously, Paul Schäfer is such an integral figure to the story. How did you land on Michael Nyqvist for that role?
With Michael, I saw him in As It Is In Heaven – a wonderful film he did maybe ten years ago – and I saw a certain quality of obsession in the performance that he gave there that I thought would be great for Paul Schäfer. Unfortunately, his schedule didn’t fit our shooting schedule and we were looking for other options. Finally, on the day before we started to shoot, I said “no, there’s nobody as good as Michael, and we just have to make it work.” We changed our schedule round in a crazy way to accommodate his days. He left from the United States on Saturday, arrived on Sunday in Luxembourg, and started shooting on Monday with us. That was very risky, because there was no time to prepare with him; but, in our very first conversation, he said “if I’m to portray this Paul Schäfer character, it’s not good enough that I just imitate a bad guy and the things that I know about him – I have to go into my own psyche, I have to climb down into my own darkness and discover my own Paul Schäfer within me, and look at the darkness and the emptiness in me that I normally don’t want to look at.” He did, and not every actor is willing to do something like that; that he did is why I think his performance is so frightening. I’m really grateful and I admire him for that.
With the darker aspects of The Colony as prominent as they are, did you feel the romance angle between Daniel and Emma’s characters was important in giving the audience something to invest in and hold on to?
That’s a good question, the angle we came from was that we wanted to identify with people who come from, let’s say, our world – a normal society, an open society – and then enter this very horrendous world of Paul Schäfer and the cult. That was the first step, to choose these kind of characters as the main characters, and then the idea came up that he gets abducted and she goes to rescue him – that she enters the cult in order to find him there. We all liked the idea of the girl being the one who takes the risk and who rescues the guy, instead of it traditionally being the other way around. And yeah, maybe I have a liking for the romantic side as well, so we decided that there could be a love story as well, to balance the violence and the darkness of Colonia Dignidad.
So, as the force behind the film, what would you hope that audiences take away from The Colony?
I hope they see what happens if a group of people just follows one guy, and doesn’t stop to think critically, stop to ask questions, stop to take responsibility for their own actions, and only follows along. There is such a tremendous dynamic in that process that can bring out such horrible things like the Colonia Dignidad. Especially as a German, we have experience with leaders and the catastrophes that they can bring about. I think that if the audience takes away that we have to think for ourselves, to really make our own decisions, and we have to constantly question our leaders, then I’d be very happy.
Do you feel that that’s a very topical message right now?
It’s unfortunately a very, very timely message in times where we see people craving strong leadership all over the place, and strong leaders who have shockingly simple answers for actually very complex questions. I think it’s a very important message to repeat to people: that even if life feels easier with the simple answers, these are not answers – you’ve got to pay the price later. The whole tendency of nations not wanting to work together any more, wanting to separate, and feeling they are better off by themselves, I think is an unfortunate and even dangerous development of the past few years.
The Colony is in cinemas and On Demand from Friday, July 1st; rated 15. Check out the trailer below.