Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Songs of Repression, A Hideous Past


Beatrice Loayza writes about the intermingling of place and past in Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga’s Songs of Repression. Songs of Repression is available in Block 2 (Sat 12th Sept Sept midday – Tue 15th Sept Sept midnight BST).

As a child, I was always puzzled when, seemingly off-hand, my mother mentioned the “blue-eyed and blonde” Germans—real Germans—who lived in Chile, Argentina, Peru (and all over Latin America, really) in remote colonies inhabited exclusively by their own. She seemed amused, as if she were debunking a myth or revealing a little-known curiosity about the region that outsiders knew nothing about.

Midway through Songs of Repression, a tour bus pulls into what is today called “Villa Bavaria,” or Bavarian Village, an Edenic German colony some four hours south of Santiago that had been formerly known as “Colonia Dignidad.” The tour is conducted in German-inflected Spanish by one of the colony’s members, who ushers the group through what looks like a barnhouse museum. I imagine one of my own relatives among them, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at these stereotypical Bavarian facades, the beer, the lederhosen. Later, one of the tourists settles into a hot tub, looking out at the brilliant flora and fauna as he sips on a fresh mojito. The setting sun douses the world in a serene orange glow.

Yet the tranquility of this secluded religious community is deceptive. Terror defines nearly four decades of its past: daily beatings, mass graves, torture chambers, sexual assault, rampant child abuse. Many of Villa Bavaria’s present-day inhabitants are the very victims and perpetrators. Co-directors Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga spent nearly three and a half years with the infamous Colonia Dignidad’s remaining residents, a group of about 120, mostly wizened, Germans and German-Chileans. 

Songs of Repression isn’t really a film about a cult in the titillating, scandalous sense to which we have become accustomed. (Though efforts have been made to translate this same story into a bankable political thriller, with Emma Watson as the lead.) Details of the colony’s brutal practices under the leadership of founder Paul Schäfer, a child rapist and former Nazi, are explained through occasional inter-titles, or in jittery recollections. But Wagner and Hougen-Moraga are less concerned with rehashing the grisly details than they are with communicating a fractured historical memory, exploring what living, working, and raising a family in the very setting of such a hideous past looks and feels like. Sometimes the camera simply rests on a lush landscape or a flower garden, challenging us to think beyond the readily apparent, to feel how everyday things—beautiful things—are embedded with temporality and pain. 

It is an approach that blunts our icky, drive-by fascination with tragedy, our hunger for unbelievable truths. Instead, we are confronted with the various textures of collective trauma, the ways in which “moving forward” forgoes meaningful rehabilitation for the illusory comfort of a clean slate. Some commune-members prefer to “forgive and forget”, a more convenient approach for the complicit. Others remember their experiences quite vividly and their anger and hurt feels fresh, as if the wounds were recently opened. I’m particularly struck by the meandering nature of these interviews, the way sentences seem to abruptly drop off into silence, as if the subjects are still yet to find the words to describe it all. They might never find them, because in their stead are facades, smiles, songs—warped and disfigured—that manifest their suffering in deeply inadequate terms. 

Beatrice Loayza is a Peruvian-American film critic.

Tickets for Songs of Repression are on sale now.