RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: JANNIE TOTSIENS [JOHNNY FAREWELL] (1970)

The “Reader Recommendation” category includes films nominated by our readers as deserving of consideration for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time.

by Trevor Moses, film archivist at the National Film, Video and Sound Archives (South Africa)

DIRECTED BY: Jans Rautenbach

FEATURING: Cobus Rossouw, Jill Kirkland, Hermien Dommisse, Phillip Swanepoel, Katinka Heyns, Don Leonard, Lourens Schultz, Patrick Mynhardt, Betty Botha, Sandra Kotze, George Pearce, Jacques Loots.

PLOT: A catatonic mathematics professor with an Oedipus complex (as if the poor man didn’t have enough hassles already) is committed to an asylum which is a microcosm of South African society, circa 1970.  The inmates band together to attempt to restore him to life once more and when one of their number commits suicide because of him, they then attempt something more on his behalf: murder.

Still from Jannie Totsiens (1970)

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LISTJannie Totsiens is rather like Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, only far, far more weird, disturbing and funny than that Oscar winning film.  Jans Rautenbach’s film is a microcosmic view of South Africa circa 1970 and an indictment of the blinkered Afrikaner Nationalist enforced attitudes and very dubious morals of the time.

COMMENTS: 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 1970 – 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, a knife wielding nymphomaniac with Bible thumping parents (Katinka Heyns), an ex Ossewabrandwag soldier with an uncanny resemblance to John Vorster (Don Leonard), a judge (Jacques Loots) 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, and a psychotic, lovesick woman (Jill Kirkland) who continuously writes unsent letters to her dead daughter.  Other characters include the sane, disabled artist Frans (Phillip Swanepoel) whose parents locked him up in the asylum because they were ashamed of him, and the Director of the asylum (Lourens Schultz), a weak-willed, gambling, drinking good-for-nothing, almost as mad as those he cares for, whose only purpose in life is to give injections and make his inmates swallow pills.  The seemingly mad and mother-fixated Jannie Pienaar  was supposedly based both on director Jans Rautenbach’s treatment by the critics and some of the more sensitive sections of the South African community, and Rautenbach’s experiences as a clinical psychologist.  He finds himself 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.  For real.  Not by his neck, but by his feet.

One would have to go very far back or far forward into the future of the South African film industry’s history to find a film as horrific, comic (yes, it is very funny in parts) and perfect as this, with brooding photography (courtesy David Dunn Yarker and Koos Roets, ACS ), 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.  To unsuspecting first time viewers, this film’s impact is still felt months and years later.  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, notwithstanding the fact that each viewer of this film feels like they have just been dinged on the head with a very large, heavy board when the film ends.

Bruce Lee says in Enter The Dragon, “Boards….. don’t hit back.”  This one does.

This film is available solely in the Afrikaans language and can be purchased from kalahari.net.

12 thoughts on “RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: JANNIE TOTSIENS [JOHNNY FAREWELL] (1970)”

  1. Trevor,

    This film sounds insanely interesting. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    A little bit more information about this film can be learned from the book “The cinema of apartheid: race and class in South African film,” by Keyan Tomaselli. Excerpts from that book can be previewed here for those who are interested.

    My only reservation is that the film is not currently available in English. I hope this omission is rectified in the future.

  2. Hi guys
    I am putting an article together for Wikipedia on the Exploitation films of South Africa.
    The lofty goal of this project is to get ZAxploitation recognised as a sub genre of Exploitation film ;-).

    I would love to chat with someone who has a good knowledge of S.A. film & the S.A. film industry.
    Perhaps you guys could put me in touch with the author of this article (Trevor Moses?).
    If not, perhaps you can recommend someone else who may be interested?

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