In Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga’s Songs of Repression, screening in Main Competition, we hear of acts of evil and encounter acts of kindness. What makes the film so compelling is that many of the film’s characters have been, at some point of their lives, more than capable of both.
The story of Colonia Dignidad, a German ex-pat settlement in Chile, has been widely reported over the years. It was set up by former medic and WWII corporal Paul Schaeffer in the early 1960s, but very soon all idyllic notions were expunged as it was transformed into a personal fiefdom where ritual abuse of women and children was encouraged, and rape was commonplace. In the 1970s Schaeffer and his associates collaborated with Pinochet in the torture and mass burial of Chilean protesters.
But we see no historical archive in Songs of Repression, other than an establishing b/w photo in which the residents of the camp pose, together with Schaeffer, as for a school photo.
The story that Wagner and Hougen-Moraga tell is of the colony’s subsequent legacy, one underpinned by ongoing trauma and the most intense psychological scarring. To this day, victims and perpetrators, if indeed it is possible to distinguish between the two camps, live side by side. Which means that memories of the past can never be erased, or even temporarily set aside.
On the face of it, it all seems so blissful. Now named Villa Baviera, the setting could indeed be the foothills of the Alps (as opposed to the Andes) where young women serve beers in dimdl dresses, men in lederhosen play their harmonicas and groups of villagers gather to sing in plaintive harmony.
But interviews throughout the film tell a very different story. Horst the beekeeper is full of hate for the way he was treated, until he reveals how he too was a perpetrator of cruel violence to fellow colonists. The aged Dora is very sweet, a bit batty and driven by an (ostensibly non-threatening) religious zeal. But then we find out she is an apologist for Pinochet, “a sweet man” whom she believes had no idea about the crimes committed under his watch as president of the country.
In their notes for their film the directors stress how they aimed “to explore how the individual and the community rewrite their past. Be it to be able to live on after having been abused, as a mechanism to forget and to avoid haunting nightmares, or be it to hide away from the shame and inner demons after having abused or tortured others.”
“It’s so murky, and very human,” adds co-director Wagner.
The psychological conflict continues in the form of Helga, Horst’s articulate and measured wife, who genuinely (and jaw-droppingly) reveals before her husband and a therapist that she had no idea that sex could in any way be linked with love.
“That [exchange] had a different quality because there is a triangle of people where each one has a different knowledge,” points out Wagner. “The therapist you can say is the normal person who knows how the world works, and Helga is the one that doesn’t know that love and sexuality can even go together. And then there is this man who suffers this trauma and pain, but at the same time doesn’t want to hurt his wife, so he is in this very difficult and uncomfortable position.”
“That was one of our main motivations in making this film,” adds Hougen-Moraga. “We both touched upon trauma in other films that we have made, and we were both very interested in exploring how these people would get on after all these traumatic events, and we also asked ourselves how can it be possible to live in this place where the psychological reality is just full of trauma, even within the buildings that are there.” The barn in which Chileans were tortured still stands.
So why no use of archive, especially of Schaefer? Surely this is a film crying out for historical footage of events that have such a bearing on both Chilean and German history and culture?
“He is dead, and he was sentenced [to 33 years in 1986, dying in prison], so it is very easy to [see] him as the person solely responsible for everything,” says Wagner. “We deliberately avoided that to both activate the audience’s brain and to take away this very black and white idea.”
Hougen-Moraga adds: “It is very much a film about how they live with it today. Of course the film tells about the past but it is not a historical film about the past, it is very much about the present.”
“We are hoping this film will open up a dialogue about how you can break the pattern so that traumas are not repeated all the time throughout the generations,” she continues, stressing how such an examination can help us deal with unresolved traumas in our own lives or on a societal level – or beyond.
“It is also a lot about how totalitarian regimes continue to go on and repeat themselves if we don’t [put in place] a proper reconciliation process.”