IHow did you come up with the theme “Colonia Dignidad”?
Matthias Zuber: I knew the author Britta Buchholz from the Berlin School of Jour- nalism where I taught. She was in Chile in 2005 when Paul Scha_fer, then the head of the sect, was arrested in Argentina. Britta travelled to the former Colonia Dignidad hoping to write a story for “Die Zeit” [a well-known weekly paper in Germany]. She was one of the first free journalists allowed access to the sect after decades of isolation. She got to know, in addition to others, the family Schnellenkamp. After completing her research, she called me from Chile and asked me if I was interested in making a film with her about the situation there. Late in 2005, I was there for the first time with Britta and met some of the people involved in the former Colonia Dignidad.
Martin Farkas: I heard about the Colonia Dignidad for the first time in the mid-1980s. Since then, I have been strongly interested in the reports about it. In it I saw parallels with my own personal history. I grew up in a very engaged religious community, whose strict values and rules we could not question as children or even adolescents. We saw ourselves as commissioned and chosen ones. For me, the way out of this movement as a young adult was extremely difficult; really, it still accompanies me today. When Matthias suggested this theme, it quickly became clear to me that I had more to contribute than “only” as cameraman. So we came to the decision to direct the film together, Matthias with his more theoretical starting point and me with my personal one. Most of the people we see in the film were socialized as children into a system they weren’t allowed to question. Because the mere questioning had brutal punishment as its consequence, a punishment that was not only physical but also psychological torture. And today these people still live together with their torturers. The perpetrators were also parental surrogates. The victims didn’t know anything else. And only recently, since Paul Scha_fer is in prison, do they begin little by little to understand what has happened to them. We consciously don’t tell the stories of those who managed to get out. These people do exist and they have cut off “their roots” through their escape. It’s strange, but there doesn’t seem to be healing in simply getting away. The wounds run too deep. And that’s why we wanted to examine how it works when a person slowly looks for answers inside the old community. It’s unbelievably difficult and painful.
What caused you to want to make a film about this topic?
Martin Farkas: To carry a thought further, the constellation in Villa Baviera reminds me of the time after 1945 in Germany. Here the perpetrators, there the victims. The wish to engage oneself in a better world and sacrificing so much for it, joining a community, becoming part of the hierarchical religious structures, without ques- tioning them, for the sake of shared ideal. Searching for the points where this breaks down, describing them, understanding them, seemed to me a very fitting topic for a documentary film.
Matthias Zuber: I was fascinated by the phenomenon that people were shut up in a parallel world for 40 years, in a for us absurd and perverse parallel system of values that were normal for these people. A huge, perverse experiment on people. Because of this phenomenon we can ask a whole collection of exciting questions: Are ethical systems simply a matter of education? Is resistance even possible? Looking at this question in the context of the Third Reich, the question is particu- larly interesting in respect to the responsibility of the individual in a dictatorship. The people of the former Colonia Dignidad thoughtat least many of them didthat they were doing the right thing, the “good” thing. That they were even the “bridal community of Christ”. In this conviction, they created a regime of terror. A phenom- enon that we see in many countries and groups that establish religiously governed communities or simply want a radically manifested social structure of another ide- ology. At another less theoretical level, I was simply touched by the fates and the suffering of some of the people in the former Colonia Dignidad. And I asked myself how is it possible after the experience of being the victim, to go on living with the perpetrators. I was very interested to discover that.
Martin Farkas: For me, it was also always about the journey to the “heart of darkness”. Looking back, perhaps also whether I could hold out on this journey, make it through...Maybe a fearful desire to look “evil” in the eye. Yes, and it was about a foundational topic that interested me: the individual in society. The dependencies and the individual possibilities. In Villa Baviera, as the Colonia calls itself today, everything is extremer, because there is no outside. Even today there isn’t, because no one else has a share this extreme experience.
Do you also have a personal connection to this complex of topics?
Matthias Zuber: Naturally this sort of topic doesn’t “find” you arbitrarily. Inside me, there is on the one hand a strong distaste for physical, governmental or institutional repression in all of its forms. On the other hand, violence as a topic often has a strong draw on a fictional level. Even in the few moments in my life where I was confronted with real violence, I experienced these moments, however painful they were for me, as strong. I had the impression, that they made a part of my existence accessible, one that is usually buried under a pile of social and ethical mechanisms. Only much later and after the fact did I recognize the connection between the fascination and the distaste. For one thing, I experienced violence that belongs to people, to me, but is rejected in my personal as well as my social upbringing, pushed into the realm of the asocial. In this area it eats on itselfin me and in society. On the other hand, I experienced implicit as well as explicit violence in societ- ies that were somehow ethical and based on rules, but in reality this was only pre- text for personal sadistic conditions and actions. A sentence from Slavoj Zisek first made me aware of the connections: “The unknown is not a secret resistance to authority, but rather the authority itself!” Socially legitimized violence never only serves the professed purpose, such as punishment, prevention or order, but is al- ways also and in large part psychological effect. The distaste resultsas I see it todayfrom the discrepancy that a society outlaws violence on one side and mo- nopolizes it on the other, giving people inside the system the possibility to exercise excessive violence, physical as well as institutional. And this although these people have never dealt with their own potential for violence. That’s why they sometimes become horrible monsters.
Describe, please, how you experienced the first few days in the former Colonia Dignidad, how you felt and how the people there reacted to you.
Martin Farkas: We came to this unendingly sprawling, surprisingly open area. We were given rooms in a hospital building that the Chilean government had shut down. We were careful, even a little fearful. That didn’t ever entirely go away. When we heard shots for the first time in the night, we turned out the lights in the room. The next day, it turned out that someone had shot at a rabbit. But at the same time, this openness, the unbelievable beauty of the landscape, the pioneer spirit and this living-in-another-time also affected and touched us. It made the ability of the resi- dents to live there more understandable. We were very worried about whether it would be possible to really come into meaningful contact with the people and then to be able to film them. At the beginning we were given a separate dining room, so as not to “disturb”. The first people that we encountered seemed very careful and intimidated. If someone was there, then no one else dared to approach us. The con- versations often ran as follows: Our guests explained that everything wasn’t so bad. Much to the contrary. And then they suddenly began to tell new horror stories. From the beginning, our focus wasn’t investigational. We didn’t come to uncover horrible secrets or sensational abysses. Much of the information from the stories was al- ready known, and we wanted to try to understand some things better. What are the social and personal mechanisms that lead to such disasters? What does that do to the people involved? And how do people deal with it today?
Matthias Zuber: I went there with a lot of stories inside myself. I figured we would be listened in on in our accommodations. We slept in the old hospital, where people were supposedly also tortured and killed. I slept badly the first night and had strange nightmares. During our first contact with the residents, they ranged from politely distant to rejecting. We were in a strange position. On the one hand, we wanted to make our film, but on the other it was clear to us that if we were too critical, too aggressive in our approach, then the people wouldn’t accept us and would throw us out. We were very self-controlled in the first days and weeks, tried to see every sentence and gesture we made as our hosts would interpret them. We made our way into a similar situation to the one the inhabitants of the former Colonia Dignidad were in themselves. Through this absolute spy system of the sect, the residents learned an extremely self-reflective behaviour on a certain level. Many people that we met had an unbelievable ability to gauge our mood and react to it. On the other hand, they also had the ability to tell things as one expected to hear them. One former sect member told us that this lifestyle kills your own personality. We could suspect through this small piece of experience how that might work.
How did you begin working with your protagonists?
Martin Farkas: It began very simply. We had agreed during our first walks about the place that the unusual topography of the area wouldn’t allow itself to be statically captured. So we began to build a dolly for the camera. We bought the materials in the provincial capital and let Kurt Schnellenkamp, the once second-in-command to Scha_fer, as well as the person responsible for finances, help us. That’s how we got to know him better. And while we did the manual labour in the 1960s-era workshop, Mr Spatz and Ru_diger Schmidke helped us, allowing us to form the first friendly contact with them as we worked together. We started filming these people as they worked, as well as during their daily activities, and allowed ourselves lots of time for this. There were lots of discussions without the camera. More and more people opened up. Maybe the people had the idea that we had a deeper interest in them than they had ever experienced from the general world public. Maybe that’s why some of them got involved with our project.
Matthias Zuber: As Martin said, we took a lot of time. Also so that the people could get to know us. During this time we developed relationships to one or the other personto some, very friendly ones. With Aki and Ru_diger we developed some- thing like a friendship. We talked with them very openly about impressions and feelings. We even celebrated New Year’s Eve with Aki’s family. Completely privately without the camera. Aki came to usI thinkout of the fear that we wouldn’t be able to break down the wall of silence that still surrounded the Colonia. I found Ru_digerespecially because of his own storyto be extremely open and warm. We quickly entered into discussions, and the contact intensified. With Kurt Schnellenkamp, who belonged more to the perpetrators, contact was difficult. We met with him often and began interviewing him more quickly in front of the camera. We placed great emphasis with him in not judging him, which was more difficult for some members of our team than others. We didn’t want to present him as “the guilty”. As the so-called “evil one” who took responsibility from all the others. We wanted to know what had motivated him. We hit our limits with Kurt Schnellenkamp. And even so, I feel that I learned a lot from my talks with him. The construction of a consistent self-image under the conditions of absoluteness, dictatorship or fundamentalist religion eats away at the actual person and all of his or her emotions.
You were in the former Colonia Dignidad for over two months. You lived side-by- side with the people there. Did you ever have any worries about living with potential murderers, torturers or weapons handlers?
Matthias Zuber: If I had had those worries, I wouldn’t have made this film. In your question, there is something like moral judgement. Like you are asking: How could you!?! The exciting part of this project was exactly that, to live side-by-side with potential murderers, weapons and drug dealers, and paedophiles. I live in Berlin Kreuzberg and I’m sure that I live with significantly more criminals of every description. The exceptional and interesting about Villa Baviera is the context. These people all have a common story that not only binds them together but chains them to each other, makes them prisoners. When we came to them, they already knew this. They knewat least most of them didthat they had been used, that they had made themselves guilty. How does one deal with oneself, with being the victim, with being the perpetrator, in such a situation? It’s a moment of extreme inner tur- moil. A dramatic moment. In Kreuzberg, I sense around me no significant inner turmoil. There the relationships are defined. But in Villa Bavierawhen we were filmingthere was a lot going on emotionally under the frozen surface. And making something of this turmoil tangible, that’s what we’re trying to do with “German Souls”.
Martin Farkas: Naturally we had big fears and scruples. We knew for example that all the rooms used to be monitored over the loudspeaker system and also partially through hidden microphones. We didn’t know how much that system might still be functional and in use. That’s why we half-heartedly held “conspiratorial” discussions at the beginning. We went walking if we wanted to talk about our impressions of Villa Baviera. There were strange, hidden threatswe felt. One time one person asked if we weren’t afraid that tomorrow the doors of the community would be shut and we wouldn’t be able to get out. Maybe it was a joke, but we took it as somehow threatening. But most of all, the people were very reserved, very careful. Beyond personal sympathy or antipathy, feelings that have much less than expected to do with individual moral and legal guilt, we wanted to get to know these people. Of course there was the ever-present question: To what extent do you qualify what happened here by asking questions out of interest or sharing the everyday lives of these people? That means, eating and even laughing with them. And naturally there was also the question after a long, nocturnal talk where someone told us about disgusting sufferings and absolutely despicable practices, isn’t it better to leave all these things to the courts and just go? On the other side of this, there was the wish of the people that we slowly and very tediously came into discussion with to be seen as complex people, not just “victims” and “perpetrators”.
Do you still have contact to people from the former Colonia Dignidad now that production has finished?
Martin Farkas: Yes, I telephone and exchange e-mail with a few regularly. I formed some personally surprising relationships. To some people more, to others less. We’re going to go back with the film soon and show it to them.
Matthias Zuber: A few months ago, Aki was in Germany. It was the first time in over 40 years, since he had been brought as a baby to the Colonia, that he was in Germany. It was I think very exciting for him. In addition to other things, he visited me in Berlin and stayed for a few days. I took a bike tour with him and my son through our capital city. He also visited Martin in Munich.
The film begins very quietlymetaphorically as well. Only as it continues does it describe the horrors of Colonia Dignidad. You hardly go into some of the documented horrible deeds and crimes. Why?
Matthias Zuber: That’s a good observation. It’s true; we don’t aim for the horror nerve right from the beginning. That’s because our focus wasn’t the documentation of the horrors that happened there. There’s already an impressive film from Gero Gemballa made in 1989 with the title “Colonia DignidadThe Villiage of Dignity.” We were interested in the question: What does a violent, totalitarian regime do to people? And how do these people deal with their history, their trauma, their involvement as perpetrator or victim after it ends? That’s why we only involved the crimes committed in the Colonia in the film as far as they describe the situation of the people that we follow. It wasn’t about making a complete picture of the horrors or compiling a list of the crimes. For us, the peoplethe victims as well as the perpetratorsare the centre of the story. Work on the film shook my own self-image in more than one respect. For one thing, I now believe that I could actively be a part of an unjust system. For anotherI thinkit’s very difficult to recover from this kind of human catastrophe by dividing everyone up into the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. “Victims” are in such a system sometimes also “perpetrators” and many “perpetrators” are also “victims”. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t work through the history and the question of guilt, but rather that the future can’t exist without this process. And that, as Hannah Arendt wrote, doesn’t work without forgiveness. Because forgiveness requires atrocities and actions to each be named and addressed. That the guilt that rested on the shoulders of individuals be recog- nized and understood. That’s a very painful processfor a society as well as an individual.
Martin Farkas: As Matthias just said, it’s not about painting a complete historical, legalistic picture of Colonia Dignidad. It’s not about the sensation. Rather it’s about the attempt to better understand the individual actions of the people who suffered through but also helped to create this sort of story and to observe how they attempt to master their present circumstancesin many ways in a “typically German” fashion.
The Chilean victims for example are almost ignored. Don’t this telling of the story and this omission downplay the political and criminal phenomenon “Colonia Dignidad”?
Matthias Zuber: Again, it wasn’t our aim to trace the political and criminal phenomenon. There are other films, other projects that do that. On the concrete level of our film, it also wasn’t about phenomena, but rather about people and fates in a historically unique, yet transferable situation.
Martin Farkas: Of course I see the danger that our focus brings with it. The danger of downplay is always there. We dealt with the people who live in the Villa today and we tried through the film to release the responsibility for the crimes, including those against the Chilean people, from the unbelievable repression that reigns there. But there is another aspect: We didn’t want to present the sensation with righteous anger and even satisfaction, out of the belief that we are “better”. We wanted instead to try to get inside the being, into the inner workings of the so-called “evil ones”.And maybe to find ourselves there. That is of course at first unsatisfying, because it is confusing and because, after the film is over, it’s not so easy to find inner peace again. But this process of recognition is necessary, is even the starting point for development and for healing, when and however it comes. And I hope that through these aims, the film makes a deeper sense of the political and criminal phenomenon of Colonia Dignidad possible. And through this, that it gives justice to the Chilean victims.
Your protagonists are all “victims”, at least as they are presented in the film, with the exception of Kurt Schnellenkamp, who served for a time the second-in-command to Schaefer. Aki says in one interview: “It’s not my fault. It’s their fault!” How realistic is this picture in a sect that is proven to have tortured and murdered?
Martin Farkas: I think that exactly this rebellion you describe in Aki is the necessary beginning to ever developing a moral system, one which was systematically erased there. His rebellion exists in a context. He doesn’t accept that the perpetrators want to write off the past with a collective declaration of guilt. But I see if differently, that everyone was portrayed as a victim. We took the risk of showing all our protagonists as characters, in hopes of showing our assessment of how near the “evil” is us all.
Matthias Zuber: It would be fatal if the film would function as you just described it. I see the film differently. I get to know people in “German Souls” who come from a totalitarian system and who fight to live again after the system has broken down. Certainly Aki and Ru_diger are more “victims” than Kurt. For us it’s about the moments like the one where Kurt says that his oaths mean more to him than the sexual inviolacy of his children. Or when Ru_diger says that he’s become a bit more of a man. It’s these moments thatin my opinionmake the essence and the con- sequences of the totalitarian system emotionally tangible and accessible. That’s where I hope the quality of the film lies.
The former sect and the mass of the crimes committed there seem enormous and historically unique. To take such a phenomenon on as the topic for a 90-minute documentary, isn’t the failure almost guaranteed...?
Martin Farkas: Of course!
Matthias Zuber: As I already said: For me, the story of the Colonia is a canvas on which “German Souls” makes the essence and consequences of a totalitarian system emotionally tangible and accessible through quiet little moments. For me, it’s about developing empathy for the protagonists. Even for Kurt Schnellenkamp. I get cold shutters down my spine when I see how Kurt Schnellenkamp looks at his grandson at the family picnic. The coldness gives me the creeps, but at the same time I see everything that must have died in that man. I see this sinister loss of humanity in that gaze and a deep sadness for this old man mixes with my discomfort.
What can a documentary achieve in the face of such a topic?
Martin Farkas: Maybe it can bring the monstrousness which we can’t describe nearer in small steps, down from the mountain where it was created, until we don’t have to look at the things that remind us of ourselves.
Matthias Zuber: To me, this film is about this ambivalence, this discarding of certainty and cliche_s. When I go from being creeped out to feeling empathy, as I just described. The author Dieter Welleshoff once said that the assignment of literature is to make experiences ap- proachable to people who usually wouldn’t have them in their lives. That broadens their horizons. I have the same expectation of a film. A film should open up my experiential horizon. It should at least partially make these experiences some- thing I can relate to, even those like this case that I’ve luckily never had to deal with. I think this film has those moments in which I can make such revelations and that, when that happens, is its achievement.
How transferable do you think the mechanisms are that were used in Colonia Digni- dad to make the people obedient and to motivate them to take part in torture?
Matthias Zuber: VeryI’m afraid. People are rather easy to convince that they should torture and kill others. Knowing this with all certaintyeven about myself and the consciousness of it, that I’m a violent creature, and the active, conscious handling of it can maybe keep me safe from that sort of behaviourmaybe. As I said in the beginning: “The unknown is not a secret resistance to authority, but rather the authority itself.”
Martin Farkas: In the hermetic of this system, Colonia Dignidad is certainly very unique and there are surely many horrible, historically and politically “favourable” conditions that must exist so that such a thing can come into being. But in the mechanics of the whole, it’s really made of small steps that are unfortunately deeply human and even current!
What is the “German” aspect of the “Colonia Dignidad” phenomenon?
Martin Farkas: I myself am a German and certainly too close to the situation to an- swer that question. However, I have found certain attitudes towards the fulfilment of obligations, order, work, fitting in, that I see more in Germany than in other coun- tries. These attitudes can be great strengths, but they can also contribute negatively to the formation of such a closed, extremely destructive system, as one sees in large mass in the example of the Third Reich.
Matthias Zuber: For me, the German aspect of the “Colonia Dignidad” phenomenon is the romantic, the enthusiastic, the philosophy of the popular ideology that turned toward horror, murder and torture. This darkness behind all the thoughts that float so brazenly over the world, that construct something august from profits and to which blood finally sticks. This is a world that horrifies but is still familiar. The German is for me in this case the “eerie” as Freud meant it: the once well-known familiar that has been repressed.
Your film deals indirectly with the question of “evil” and to what extent it fits into the description of historical and social practices. Have you yourselves found an answer to this question, or rather has your answer to this question changed through your work on this film?
Martin Farkas: Even before beginning this project, my concept of evil wasn’t some- thing identifiable on a person’s exterior. A quotation from the play “La muerte y la doncella” by Ariel Dorfman, which Matthias brought into one of our many discussions, haunts me. In it, an Argentine doctor who tortured someone responds to the question of why he tortured and raped by simply saying: because it was possible.
Matthias Zuber: That seems trivial, but really it’s a profound basis. People do ter- rible things to other people when it’s possible.
How do you think the inhabitants of the former Colonia Dignidad will react to the film?
Martin Farkas: First of all, they will be disappointed. Angry with the people who talked. But maybe they’ll see this as their chance to discuss further what has happened to them. Dr Schwember, the Chilean government official, talks about the “Black Box” in his interview. Maybe they’ll slowly, slowly be able to open that box someday in order to make a forensic rehabilitation possible and to learn discernment again.
History of Colonia Dignidad
Paul Scha_fer founded the “Private Social Mission”, a home and school for children of sect members, in Siegburg near Bonn. In Lohmar-Heide, the developing sect built its community building. To the outside world, they appeared to be a happy congregation that officially ran a youth home. But appearances and facts began to diverge. Slowly but surely, Scha_fer’s followers had to give up their family ties completely. A “free Christian” could serve God better, according to Scha_fer. Here as it had already been in the youth group, the most intimate “confessions” were required. As sect leader, Scha_fer required sexual asceticism from his believers; as a dominant paedophile, he sexually abused young boys. The group showed itself early as capable of turning a profit. Grocery stores were founded. The members of the sect had to work hard without earning wages for their work.