Inside a Nazi Pedophile’s Horrifying Chilean Child-Rape Cult
The new doc “Songs of Repression” examines Villa Baviera (formerly Colonia Dignidad), a German settlement in Chile founded by a fugitive Nazi pedophile who abused countless kids.
There’s something rotten in the country of Chile: Villa Baviera, a German agricultural settlement that was established by fugitive Nazi pedophile Paul Schäfer in the early 1960s under the name Colonia Dignidad (“Colony of Dignity). At this remote rural enclave, Schäfer fostered unity and obedience by subjecting children to random and brutal beatings doled out by himself and his acolytes (chief among them, his “hierarchs”), by personally molesting and raping kids, by murderously collaborating with General Augusto Pinochet during his 1970s reign of terror, and then by conditioning everyone to embrace a culture of suffering, spying on their neighbors, and silent obedience. It was, by most accounts, a place whose cheery, tranquil exterior masked depravity.
Colonia Dignidad was the inspiration for this year’s standout stop-motion animation feature The Wolf House, and it’s also the subject of Songs of Repression, Marianne Hougen-Moraga and Estephan Wagner’s documentary (premiering online at DOC NYC, Nov. 11-19) about those who grew up in this sect, and now must grapple with its enduring legacy. Executive produced by Joshua Oppenheimer—whose masterful The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are kindred thematic works about group-think atrocities, genocidal tyranny, and confronting monstrous histories—it’s a sterling non-fiction investigation into the traumatic scars of the past, and the means by which victims cope with horrors so upsetting they can barely be thought about, much less discussed. Which is why it’s all the more wrenching to see men and women do just that—except, that is, for those who continue to believe that Colonia Dignidad’s crimes against its own, and humanity, are best left ignored.
Songs of Repression’s title refers to Colonia Dignidad’s employment of choirs and orchestras to unify its inhabitants. Like the beatific landscapes that Hougen-Moraga and Wagner use as backdrops during title-card interludes that provide historical context for their tale, these ditties exude a sense of harmony, happiness, and contentment that’s directly at odds with the locale’s darker reality. Rather than laying things out from the get-go, the filmmakers instead set their basic scene and then introduce viewers to a handful of the approximately 120 individuals who still call Colonia Dignidad home. For those such as Dora, a friendly older woman seen working in a greenhouse, her upbringing in this bubble-like commune—cut off from the outside world in most respects—was marked by days singing in the fields, and nights lying in hay wagons gazing up at the stars. “That was something beautiful,” she says nostalgically.
Not everyone, however, fondly looks back on those days. Chief among them is Horst Schaffrik and his wife Helga Bohnau, whose countenances exhibit a mixture of lingering shock, unfathomable suffering, and irrepressible anger when chatting about their lives in Colonia Dignidad. According to Horst, the colony’s kids were assaulted without warning, and for reasons that remained mysterious to them. Moreover, they were carried out by their comrades on the orders of Schäfer, who enjoyed watching his charges beat their fellow Germans for upwards of 30 minutes at a time. The look of anguish and fury on Horst’s face as he addresses the unthinkable child abuse he and others had to endure is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Colonia Dignidad was determined to warp and wound its inhabitants, both physically and psychologically, and when Helga admits—during a conversation with a woman looking to promote healthy romantic ideas to today’s kids—that she never equated love and sex (“That’s not the case for me, unfortunately. There is love, but the two don’t go hand in hand”), the depth of Schäfer’s corrosive indoctrination becomes clear. Horst’s subsequent conversations with friend Acki Georg Laube, who recalls hearing Pinochet prisoners being tortured to death in the dead of night, and is harassed on-camera by elderly residents who don’t want him to publicly discuss such matters, further reveal the lasting trauma of these adolescent and early adulthood experiences.
Directors Hougen-Moraga and Wagner capture that sorrow and anguish through unobtrusive, expressive aesthetics, as when their camera segues gently from Helga’s fingers plucking nervously at the strings of her lute, to her distant, grief-stricken eyes. Nurse Maria Schnellenkamp routinely tends to patients with long-standing anxiety and agitation issues born, seemingly, from years of vicious oppression. Yet despite those conditions, many have chosen to do as the hierarchs instructed (in a ceremony following Schäfer’s conviction) and “forgive and forget.” Whether it’s a man who received electroshock therapy for trying to escape Colonia Dignidad as a kid and yet now works as a friendly tour guide, a couple that admits they’d rather leave the past behind them (even as the husband’s expression underlines the impossibility of fully doing so), or Dora parroting the archaic Pinochet-was-a-gentle-soul propaganda she was fed by her superiors, Songs of Repression illustrates the deep hooks of hateful disinformation.
It also proves an eye-opening and depressing expose about the fact that, faced with the choice of reckoning with their own criminal conduct and the damning exploitation they suffered, or living in blissful denial of their sinister complicity, many have gladly opted for the latter. Songs of Repression is a portrait of evil being willfully suppressed by its perpetrators and its victims, who are often one and the same. To see that play out in real time, as many current Colonia Dignidad residents gather for group sing-alongs and stage an annual festival of food, games, and musical performances, is to be reminded of the difficulty of bringing the ugly truth to light—and the importance of holding the wicked accountable for their atrocities, no matter the consequences it might have on one’s heart and mind.
Songs of Repression is a piercing examination of a unique cult that refuses to totally die, and of the painful process of wrestling with unforgivable sins perpetrated by fascists in the name of purity, togetherness and “freedom.” Those lessons are applicable to Colonia Dignidad as they are in many corners of the world—including here, as America deals with the aftermath of Donald Trump’s first presidential term—and Hougen-Moraga and Wagner’s poignant, urgent film addresses those issues with an all-too-timely combination of hope, fear, and sadness.