Jannie Totsiens (PAL)
The British film industry gave us the movies of Hammer and Amicus. The German film industry gave us silent masterpieces like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and later a whole host of wild Edgar Wallace krimis. Italy gave us the giallo thriller, Japan gave us the kaiju eiga and kaidan genres, Spain put its own continental twist on the classic horror monsters of previous decades and Mexico pitched in by mixing the lucha libre, or masked wrestler film, with the horror genre. The United States of course gave us the Universal monster movies, the memorable quickies of American International Pictures and a whole slew of genre greats like George Romero and Wes Craven. Each one of these countries has made its own distinctive mark, and while other nations have produced horror pictures of their own, few of those efforts have left any great impression on the genre as a whole.
Despite having one of the world’s oldest film industries, South Africa is practically always missing from any discussion world horror cinema, which at first glance is a little odd considering how many horror films have actually been shot there (one of the more prominent recent examples being the recent Last House on the Left remake). The problem is that very few of those horror films have been actually made by South African producers, writers and directors. The majority have been foreign productions filmed there in order to save money. Thus the country is rarely shot as it truly is. It’s almost always filmed for its ability to look like someplace else. Which brings us to today’s review, which is a real rarity: a completely homegrown South African horror movie.
Meet young, handsome Jannie Pienaar (Cobus Rossouw), a mathematics professor who has inexplicably become catatonic. He can still walk and move, but he can't talk and is barely responsive to external stimuli. With his psychiatrist unable to break through to him, and not knowing what else to do, Jannie's mother has reluctantly decided to have her son committed to an insane asylum in the countryside. The doctor in charge of the institution (Lourens Schultz) believes that the overworked academic needs rest, but it seems that this particular asylum is not a place where he is going to find it. From the moment he first walks through the door he is exposed to the clinic's other patients, which include the crazy, middle-aged Koos (Don Leonard), a physically deformed artist named Frans (Phillip Swanepoel), an older woman named Magda (Hermien Domisse) who wears a lot of creepy make-up, a beautiful girl named Linda (Katinka Heyns), an Englishwoman named Liz (Jill Kirkland) and an aging ex-judge (Jacques Loots).
Just how crazy are these people? Well, Koos is an ex-member of the Ossewabrandwag, a militant Afrikaner organization that protested South Africa's involvement in World War II by committing acts of sabotage against the state; he had the misfortune of blowing up a train carrying his own brother. Now he has delusions of martial grandeur and is convinced he will soon be prime minister of the country. Magda lived in the asylum before it was even an asylum; her wedding was held there. Her husband converted the place into an institution after his treatment of her ended up driving her crazy. Linda has the personality of a ten year-old girl and Liz continually writes letters to her apparently dead daughter. The judge went crazy after his own daughter was murdered by a rich man, who ended up going free because he was rich; now the poor man ties miniature nooses and hangs plants in the asylum's greenhouse. Only Frans, with his unusual physical maladies - his neck is elongated, one arm is missing and the other arm is paralyzed - is sane. He was only committed to the asylum because his family was embarrassed by his deformities.
Christmas is coming, and slowly Jannie starts to come out of his catatonia and even starts to talk again. But his newly reclaimed ability to communicate allows him to get mixed up in a love triangle where he finds himself caught in a choice between Linda and Liz. When, on New Year's Eve, he ultimately chooses Linda to be the object of his affections, Liz's heart becomes so broken that she commits suicide with an overdose of medication. Her death sends shock waves through the asylum. Blaming Jannie for Liz's death, Magda, Koos and the judge convene a tribunal where they find him guilty and sentence him to the ultimate punishment - death by hanging - but with an unusual twist that has to be seen to be believed...
One rainy afternoon in early 2009 I found myself browsing through a quaint used bookstore in the South African city of Durban. There I came across a slim, dog-eared paperback volume called The Case for South Africa. The book was a compilation of written and oral statements made before the United Nations by Eric H. Louw, foreign minister for South Africa from the mid-1950’s to the early 1960’s. The country he represented had been a founding member of the UN organization in 1945 under the leadership of an internationalist and pro-British prime minister named Jan Smuts. Three years later Smuts' government fell when his party suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls and power moved into the hands of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, which set about changing South Africa's racial laws, already regressive to begin with, into the formal system that became known as apartheid.
World opinion in reaction to the apartheid system was extremely negative, and the new government came under immediate diplomatic assault, especially at the United Nations where the communist bloc and the newly independent states of Africa and Asia, among others, singled South Africa out for condemnation. The Case for South Africa reproduces Eric Louw's statements before the UN during the period of 1955 to 1962, in which he spoke against the allegations and attacks that were being made against his government, and perhaps the most surprising thing for me, as a reader of the book nearly fifty years after it was first published, is that, in spite of the fact that most of the complaints made against the National Party government were because of apartheid, only a small portion of the book's one hundred and eighty-nine pages is actually spent explaining and defending the government's racial policies. Louw's first statement is devoted to persuading the general assembly of the UN that apartheid is purely an internal matter for South Africa and that the UN charter gives them no power to debate it. When that fails and the general assembly takes up debate of the issue, Louw strikes back in another speech by pointing out that many of South Africa’s detractors have miserable human rights records and they are in no position to make accusations. When that fails and the body imposes sanction on his country, Louw gives a somber speech warning that the United Nations had set a dangerous precedent that could lead to the ultimate destruction of the organization. Louw proves an eloquent defender of his government, and does a good job of pointing out the blatant hypocrisy of some of South Africa's most fervent opponents, but his arguments (at least on paper) begin to read as more and more desperate as time progresses, and his tone certainly indicates that he and the county he represented felt increasingly under siege.
As we Americans are seeing right now with the Tea Party movement, peoples that feel themselves to be under siege can produce some pretty weird pathologies, and there’s certainly evidence to suggest that South Africa’s increasing isolation had such an effect on its society. By the beginning of the 1970's the country was even more isolated internationally, and white control over the entire southern African region was becoming increasingly fragile. The Portuguese were fighting rebels in their colonies of Angola and Mozambique, the white regime in Rhodesia was fighting an insurgency that was about grow out of control, and the South African government itself was having increasing difficulty controlling its non-white population while also fighting a low-level insurgency in what is today Namibia. Another book I purchased in Durban, appropriately titled The Siege of Southern Africa (and written in 1974) would describe the situation as “one of bombardment by falsehood, threat and menace from the body ludicrously called the ‘United Nations’ in New York; of murder, arson and rapine by hired assassins on the borders of the four countries chiefly besieged; and of incitement by words and money gifts from innumerable ‘democratic’ Governments and Communist ‘cover organizations’ all over the world.”
This was the environment that created Jannie Totsiens - or Johnny Farewell as its title means in English - and director Jans Rautenbach, himself a psychologist before going into the movie business, condenses the craziness of his country's situation by literally recreating white South African society inside of a mental hospital. For non-South Africans the approach is both easily accessible and yet confusing. It's easily accessible because the basic idea of summing up a society's pathologies in the form of a story set in an insane asylum is an approach that can be applied to any nation on the planet, no matter what it is. But it's still mystifying because non-South African viewers will have difficulty in picking up on a lot of the symbolism in the film. I have read extensively and become very good friends with a number of South Africans, but I'll readily admit that after seeing the movie twice I still cannot say I've understood all the social and political overtones that flow through it. This should not be taken to mean that foreign viewers cannot enjoy Jannie Totsiens; if you have the ability to understand the dialogue (in my case I had an English translation of the movie's screenplay) it is a highly enjoyable, humorous, and often fascinating film, but some of the finer points will unavoidably be lost.
Jannie Totsiens has the distinction of being both the first South African horror film and the country's first black comedy. However, I must add a caveat for horror fans who may go into it expecting something similar to the horror films being produced and distributed internationally during this same time period. The horror elements are genuine, and the film produces many moments of real unease, tension and shock, but they are decidedly low-key when compared to the American and European horrors of the day. Although it bears some aesthetic resemblance to non-Gothic chillers that Hammer started producing in the early 1970's, it lacks the explicitness that those films often indulged in. Jannie Totsiens does not feel like a Terence Fisher or a Freddie Francis movie. But it does feel a lot like a David Lynch one.
It is not surprising then that the dramatic moments and the black comedy elements are more prominent than the horror elements. The film takes place entirely at the asylum and on the surrounding grounds, a valley surrounded by mountains on all sides. The "normal world" outside the asylum is never glimpsed. The entire world of the movie is this one place. There is a stark contrast between the exteriors - often shot in beautiful sunlight from angles that show off the natural beauty of the location (in this case, a place called Golden Gate National Park) - and the interior of the asylum, which looks like a genuine horror film location by virtue of both the set design and the lighting. Yet it's impossible to deny the humor of the situations that play out. The comedy is not slapstick, but rather a mature sort of humor that is allowed to grow out of the pathologies of the characters, whether it be in the form of Koos saluting legions of Ossewabrandwag soldiers that only he can see or the judge using small nooses to hang plants.
Perhaps the funniest – and yet in many ways the saddest - of all the characters is the never named doctor who runs the asylum, a useless administrator who would probably deserve to be a patient himself if not for the fact that he is genuinely aware of what his own problems are. In a scene laced with macabre humor, the doctor finds himself talking to the Frans character, confessing that he’s an incompetent doctor and lamenting the fact that he has to live with the fact that he knows he’s incompetent. The macabre humor comes from the fact that, at the very moment he is complaining of his own incompetence, Liz is in his office killing herself with drugs she stole from his unguarded medicine cabinet. The source of the doctor’s unhappy feelings is an incident from earlier in the film where Magda, Koos and the judge earlier tried to kill Jannie by locking him in a cellar room with two hundred of Magda’s cats. Jannie escaped after getting his face badly scratched up, but all the doctor could think to do in response to the incident was to order that all of Magda’s cats be euthanized, a situation even he recognized as missing the point.
The fact that Jannie Totsiens is such a mix of black comedy, horror and drama, and the fact that it does include insightful, touchingly but darkly funny moments like these make it a truly unique experience. It is a challenging film for foreign audiences today, and it seems to have been an even more challenging work for South African audiences in the early 1970’s. Refusing to narrowly conform to the conventions of any one genre, it is daringly unpredictable and thus even more unsettling. It may not be a pure horror film in the way that most fans know the concept, but there is no doubt that it is a powerful, disturbing and sometimes frightening film. A camouflaged indictment of a sick society, it is a movie that will stick in your memory for long afterwards, and it is a tragedy that it has so rarely been screened outside of its home country.
Nu Metro Home Entertainment presents Jannie Totsiens in an interlaced, full-frame 1.33:1 presentation culled from a digital master that was created from original vault elements in 1998. The transfer definitely shows the limitations of 90's telecine technology, but despite this, the film’s color palette actually doesn’t look half bad, and some shots feature bold hues that manage to jump off the screen. But the transfer is riddled with video noise, and the clarity and sharpness of the image are compromised by mediocre compression that results in many noticeable digital artifacts. Tape drop-outs also appear on a sporadic basis.
That being said, the film elements used for the transfer were actually in very good shape, and other than a few noticeable splices and scratches the image is almost wholly devoid of damage.
The movie is presented in a Dolby 2.0 Mono mix. Most of the dialogue in Jannie Totsiens is in Afrikaans, although there is a small amount of English thrown in at varying points. Overall audio quality is acceptable but not perfect, as a thin layer of hissing and popping can be heard in quiet moments throughout the film and several audio drop-outs are noticeable.
Regrettably, no English subtitles are provided for the Afrikaans dialogue.
There are no extras on this release whatsoever.
Jannie Totsiens is ripe for a rediscovery. Of the many South African films that I have seen in the past year, this is so far my favorite, and it surely will appeal to world cinema aficionados as well as to horror fans looking for something a little offbeat. Sadly, this DVD does not provide a particularly good presentation of the film, with mediocre video and sound quality, and the lack of English subtitles will keeps its audience limited to a small number of viewers outside of its home country. The film would make a perfect release for a company like Synapse or Mondo Macabro, or perhaps even from the Criterion Collection, and I certainly hope this review does it part to raise its profile.
NOTE: Despite the back cover stating that this is a Region 2 encoded release, the disc itself is Region 0
The following review was written by Trevor Moses, of the South African National Film, Video and Sound Archives. Mr. Moses is a historian of South African cinema and is a personal friend of Jans Rautenbach. He graciously made my own review possible by providing me with an English transcript of the dialogue from Jannie Totsiens.
Allegedly autobiographical in tone, this was South Africa’s first film in the avant-garde genre, one of its’ very few horror films and also its’ first black comedy. It is now known to be an allegory about the South African situation in the 1970’s – showing said situation and the country’s inhabitants in the milieu of a home for the insane whose inmates’ lives are flipped by the arrival of a catatonic, mute mathematics professor, the “angel of discord”, as he is referred to by one of the loonies. Among this merry little band, we find a jilted bride (Hermien Dommisse) whose wedding portrait depicts her holding the hand of a faceless man who locked her up in this house until she went insane, Linda, a knife wielding nymphomaniac with Bible thumping parents (Katinka Heyns), an ex-Ossewabrandwag soldier who blew up trains during the second world war and inadvertently blew up his own brother, with an uncanny resemblance to John Vorster (Don Leonard), a judge who went mad (and consequently hangs up the plants in the asylum’s hothouse in a makeshift gallows) after his daughter’s killer was let off scot free (Jacques Loots) and a psychotic, lovesick woman (Jill Kirkland) who continuously writes unsent letters to her (allegedly) dead daughter. Others include the sane, differently abled artist Frans (Phillip Swanepoel) whose parents locked him up in an asylum because they were ashamed of him, the servant James (George Pearce) who endures all the racial abuse that he can possibly stand, Beppie (Sandra Kotze), the nurse, more into having a good time partying with her male friends than assisting the Director and the aforementioned Director of the asylum (Lourens Schultz), a weak-willed, gambling, drinking good for nothing person, almost as mad as those he cares for, whose only purpose in life is to give injections and force his inmates to swallow pills.
The seemingly mad and mother fixated Jannie Pienaar (supposedly based both on director Jans Rautenbach’s treatment by the critics, some of the more sensitive sections of the South African community after the release of Katrina and Rautenbach’s experiences both as head of Prisons in the then Transvaal and as a clinical psychologist) finds himself both restored to life because of two major factors: a love triangle which involves him and two of the inmates and the horrific finale when, on the suicide of one of those inmates, Jannie is condemned to death by hanging. Not by his neck, but by his feet. All of this is done to a chilling chorus of “Guilty! Guilty” and the helpless screams of the limbless Frans who wants to help, but cannot. The swaying camera contributes to the literal insanity of the situation until Jannie is rescued by the Director, who has now found a purpose in life. Frans has the final word on what could have been a most horrific situation: “I wanted to tell them about my personal breakthrough, Doctor. But, they wouldn’t listen. All they wanted to do was to hang someone. The truth? Everything is nothing and nothing is everything.” Jannie goes home, cured but scarred and changed forever, leaving the tearful Linda cradling the marionette she made of him, saying “Jannie……….Jannie………totsiens……”
The first time that I saw this as a young, green film archivist in 1989, my immediate reaction was: “WTF is this?” One would have to go very far back or far forward into the future of the 100 year old South African film industry’s history to find a film as horrific, comic (yes, it is very, very funny in parts) and perfect as this, with brooding photography (courtesy David Dunn-Yarker and Koos Roets, A.C.S.) an eerie credits puppet show in which the spectre of death intrudes and is frightened away, haunting music by Sam Sklair and oppressive, claustrophobic set and art design. This film’s impact is still felt months and years later and judging by its’ initial reception in 1970, it is clear that the movie going public in South Africa did not know that they were actually looking into a mirror with themselves as the subjects. The film is a microcosmic view of South Africa circa 1970 and an indictment of the attitudes and morals of the time. What must be taken into consideration concerning Jans Rautenbach’s eerie, scary, frightening and quite often amusing Jannie Totsiens is that the filmmaker was placing the situation of South Africans and particularly Afrikaners circa 1970 in the setting of a mad house with the person in charge of the asylum - i.e. the feared then Prime Minister Balthazar Johannes Vorster - being as mad as the people he was supposed to be caring for. Think of Jannie as being One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, just miles better.
Jans’ triumph here in this is that one sees oneself in the film - these days, that is. If the South African government of the day had recognized that the film was actually acting as a mirror for them to see how stupid both they and their laws were, they would have banned it and Jans’ career would have been ended - it horrifies me to think that the government would probably also have had him arrested, but it was certainly possible, had they known what they were seeing.
The National Party of South Africa’s chief weapons, aside from horrific apartheid rules, were censorship and oppression: they would not have liked their benevolent, tyrannical, fatherly regime to have been compared to the goings-on in a lunatic asylum. One must remember here that when this film is viewed today, one is looking back on the South Africa of the 1970s when Afrikaner nationalism was at its’ height where “offensive” books such as Black Beauty, films, magazines, music and journals were heavily censored or banned and television was outlawed until 1975: in short, a blinkered society. Yes, that date was not a typo, you read it correctly. 1975. You were also forbidden to watch a movie in a cinema on a Sunday until 1993 due to the 90 year old “Sunday Observance Act”. Censorship reigned in South Africa to such an extent that one wonders what the government wanted their public to see, hear and read. No wonder then that the public that went to see this film in 1970 were seriously confused by what they were seeing.
I am proud and indeed honoured to say that Jans Rautenbach is both my friend and mentor - I had the pleasure of honouring him in 2007 for his contributions to the South African film industry - and the immense risks that he and his one time partner and friend Emil Nofal took in making films such as Katrina and Die Kandidaat (The Candidate) under the thumb of apartheid. The aforementioned films told the architects of apartheid where to go, how far to go, what to do with themselves there and bring back a receipt so well and in such a way, that instead of them ordering the feared Publications Control Board to ban the films, they ended up applauding them, little knowing that they were sealing their own fates.
Say farewell, Johnny Farewell.......now you’re alone, you and and your dream, say farewell.......saddle up your horse and fly to the moon.......say farewell, Johnny Farewell.......
Fantastic review Jeremy. An extremely fascinating read. Kudos to a job well done.
Thank you, good sir :)
A nice review, Jeremy.
Something I must just point out though: the digital tape was created from the original picture and sound master film reels held in the vaults of the NFA since the film was made. I know that because I delivered the reels to the lab for transfer back in 1998.
Whatever may have happened during the authoring process I have no idea.
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