“You speak their language,” says a judge to federal prosecutor Leo Ramírez in an opening scene of Dignity. It’s a line that echoes through both the real-life events in Germany and Chile that inspired this powerful drama, and the challenges involved in making the series.
Dignity is a fictionalised account of the battle to bring to justice the leader of a Germanic cult that flourished for decades in a quiet Chilean town. Established in 1961 by former Nazi and self-styled preacher Paul Schaefer, ‘Colonia Dignidad’ hid child abuse, torture and murder behind a façade of productivity and order.
Inspired in part by the efforts of Hernán Fernández, the lawyer who pursued Paul Schaefer for ten years, Dignity sees young prosecutor Leo Ramírez (Marcel Rodriguez) assigned to the team that is finally, with a new government in power, ready to bring Schaefer down. But Ramírez has his own history with the compound: as children he and his brother attended Colonia Dignidad. But after his younger brother died there in mysterious circumstances, his mother sent him to Germany, where he spent the rest of his childhood, and then studied law before returning to Chile. What his colleagues do not know is that Paul Schaefer paid for his education, to buy his mother’s silence over the death of his brother.
As a Chile–Germany co-production, featuring characters who speak both Spanish and German, Dignity presented an unusual challenge when it came to casting, especially the key role of Leo Ramírez. “We painted ourselves in quite a corner, because we had to find an actor who was a great performer and, at the same time, fluent in both languages. It took us some time, but Marcel, who is German–Paraguayan, fits the bill perfectly,” head writer and executive producer Andreas Gutzeit told Drama Quarterly in an interview about the challenges involved in making the haunting eight-part series.
It’s clear from the start that Rodriguez is perfectly cast as Ramírez, bringing a compelling mix of fragility and determination to the role (DQ put him on their ‘Ones to Watch’ list last year). As the story unfolds, the young prosecutor must face painful memories and difficult decisions.
There’s a lot working against him, but he’s got one strong ally on the local police force: detective Pamela Rodríguez (award-winning Chilean actress Antonia Zegers, whose impressive CV includes A Fantastic Woman, La Jauria, Post Mortem and No).
Also caught up in the action are his wife, Caroline Ramírez (German actress Martina Klier), Klaus, a prisoner held inside Colonia Dignidad (German–Ecuadorian actor Nils Rovira-Munoz), Bernard Hausmann, the director of Colonia Dignidad Hospital and a protégée of Schaefer (Devid Striesow, The Counterfeiters) and of course Schaefer himself (Otto Götz, Tomorrow Never Dies, Iron Sky, Schindler’s List).
Dignity comes in the wake of a wave of great Chilean screen dramas, including Oscar-winning film A Fantastic Woman; the 1970s-set drama series Mary and Mike, about two special agents with a double life as an everyday couple; another police thriller based on real-life events, Inspector Rojas: In Cold Blood; the Finnish–Chilean production Invisible Heroes; and the gripping new series La Jauría (see all of these series in SBS On Demand’s Spotlight on Chile collection).
And it’s holding up that stellar reputation: Dignity has been nominated for Germany’s prestigious Grimme Prize.
In its Australian premiere, all 8 episodes of Dignity are now streaming at SBS On Demand. Watch episode 1 now: