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Winter Howl (Aullido De Invierno)

Pinochet's German "school" from hell (where children were routinely tortured and murdered) makes for a disturbing and fascinating watch - from the Rebels With a Cause Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Tallinn’s Rebel’s with a Cause competition is a fully charged category this year – like every other year. The line-up is piled high with films from all corners of the globe; films that push the boundaries of storytelling, attempting to break all technical conventions with every scene that goes by, while also expressing great emotion through experimental styles. Winter Howl is all of those things – the latest film from Chilean filmmaker Matías Rojas Valencia – as it tells the story of two survivors from the Colonia Dignidad, the infamous German “school” that settled in the country during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. This multi-genre film uses both documentary and fiction for its storytelling, and even though the concept isn’t quite mastered, it successfully allows the story of this couple to take centre stage, which they truly deserve. Matias premiered a filthy genius fiction feature on the same topic and at the same Festival just two years ago.

Colonia Dignidad was created by Paul Schäfer, a German-Chilean minister and eventual convicted child rapist. The commune was a place for German immigrants to seek solitude in the Chilean forest, but instead, the villa became known for its inexplicable torture of both its adult and child inhabitants, countless murders, and weapons smuggling in coalition with Pinochet’s reign. Colonia Dignidad closed long before the events of this film, but the children grew up and were expected to carry this trauma on their backs and lead a normal life. How do you even move on from such events? Matias Roja uses all his creative filmmaking tools to deliver an encapsulating story about several characters whose secrets and tales all come to the surface while managing to stay respectful and factual.

The film is split up into three separate chapters – while distinct aspect ratios help to signify this – with the first and third chapters harnessing the documentary aspect of the film, while the fictional narrative of the second chapter splits the two up. Chapter one, with its 4:3 aspect ratio delivering a gorgeous little aesthetic, stars a senior couple who live an isolated life in Patagonia, while also revisiting them in the final chapter as well. Ingrid Zsurgelies and Franz Bäar are both survivors of the Colonia Dignidad and have had to endure the pain of those years while attempting to live an ordinary life in the wilderness. Chapter two though, switched the focus onto Monica (Paulina García) who goes on a pilgrimage to revisit former locations so she can bury the remains of her past. Meeting several characters on the way, both imaginative and real, mainly the granddaughter of a man whose name and ID number she constantly recites, Monica attempts to right the wrongs in her life but struggles with the overbearing sadness that inflicts her being.

The documentary aspect of the film is infinitely stronger than the fictional part. Naturally, it feels more authentic, but it carries an aura that works on several levels and you become unable to take your eyes off the story. We learn so much truth from Ingrid and Franz: Franz was tortured for most of his time in Colonia Dignidad, and the way in which he talks about his experiences is truly heartbreaking. He is a happy-go-lucky sort of character though, even with all that pain following him; cracking jokes, being affectionate to his doting partner, grafting hard in the garden, and playing around with his dogs. The man has two sides to him, and both are captured in epic fashion by Roja. The same can be said for Ingrid, who feels Franz’s pain all the way – their love is strong and as long as they have each other in their lives, then that’s all that matters. Unfortunately, the endearing nature of the two chapters doesn’t correlate with the film’s secondary story.

It reverts back to a normal aspect ratio (which doesn’t compare to that of the first and third sections), and a black and white aesthetic draped over it, the middle chapter is far less engaging than the others – not only does it seem out of place in comparison, but the story just lacks a spark. Monica’s motives are never made clear either, her importance to the film’s primary theme becomes cloudy, and the story as a whole, is a little messy. The film would have been a bigger success if it completely focused on the exploits of Franz and Ingrid – they are the stars of this film, and the exploration of their love is what holds it down on the final straight.

Nevertheless, Winter Howl is a wonderfully powerful film that sheds light on such an abnormal event in Chilean history. There have been several films based around this German cult in the Chilean wilderness, but by using the truthful testimonials that Ingrid and Franz provide, just takes it to a meaningful new level. Winter Howl isn’t just about great storytelling shrouded in a harrowing atmosphere (it really does get quite dark at times), but the film’s technical qualities are there to see as well, as the unconventional camera work adds another layer of polish to an already interesting watch – Roja’s ability to capture the joyful moments, the trauma, and stitch them together as one is a testament to his filmmaking qualities. Watching this old couple and their young love just proves one thing though: even in the heaviest of situations, you can always find the strength to live on in some form of happiness.

Winter Howl just premiered in the Rebels With a Cause Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By John McDonald - 16-11-2023

Failing from the seaside town of Southport but now living in Liverpool, John McDonald has had a passion for cinema since he was a small child. The westerns of John Wayne were his gateway into the cine...

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