Manie van Rensburg
Director of Photography:
Running time: 183 minutes
South Africa’s most expensive film to date brought together the cream of the country’s film industry to tell the real-life story of Robey Leibbrandt, an Afrikaans boxer turned revolutionary, who was planning to assassinate the country’s pro-British prime minister, General Jan Smuts, shortly after the Second World War broke out.
Originally shot as a television series before being edited down and screened across the country to tepid public interest, the film ultimately wound up, two years later, on the country’s television screens. The Fourth Reich had an estimated budget of R16 million ($6 million at the time, around $10.5 million today, which is an enormous figure for a South African film; by contrast, the 2005 Oscar-winning film, Tsotsi, was made for $3 million). It is evident that a large amount of the budget was spent on set design and costumes, but the film also benefits from being shot on location very often, and the South African countryside, with its wide open spaces and pre-war dirt roads, is well represented in this film.
The film opens in Berlin during the Olympic Games of 1936, where South African boxer Robey Leibbrandt is recruited by the German government when they learn of his affection for the National Socialist Party’s ideology and his admiration of their leader. “The Führer has created a miracle. That’s exactly what we need to happen in South Africa.” He spends the next few years training in Germany, until Germany invades Poland and Britain declares war.
In South Africa, the people’s state of mind at this time must be framed within the context of events at the turn of the century: South Africans had fought and lost against the British in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and even after becoming the Union of South Africa in 1910, a British colony, many South Africans still had little affection for the Crown. Shortly before WWII, the “Ossewabrandwag” (literally, the Ox-wagon sentinel), an ultra-nationalist organisation, was formed to resist cooperation with the British. However, General Jan Smuts, who was the country’s deputy prime minister at the time, opposed Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog (who advocated neutrality towards Germany), stating that, “in war, you are either friend or enemy”.
After Smuts defeated Hertzog in this matter, he was appointed Prime Minister, and became an instant target for the Ossewabrandwag, who disliked the British as much as they idolised the German ideologies of nationalism and anti-Semitism.
The Fourth Reich focuses on Robey Leibbrandt’s preparations for the assassination of Jan Smuts (Louis van Niekerk, made up to look exactly like the General), and on the policeman whose assignment is to track down Leibbrandt before he can carry out his mission: Jan Taillard. In the first hour of the film, these two men’s journeys (and in particular, their gestures) are intercut in a way that binds them together. Ultimately, however, it is a German woman, Erna Dorfman (very often accompanied by the second movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2), whom they both encounter, who will introduce them to each other and play an important role in the development of the narrative.
Taillard is a very competent but badly mannered policeman; when he is called to Pretoria from his home in Queenstown, his wife kindly advises him: “Try and follow orders this time…” The mission, which he chooses to accept, requires him to locate whoever is planning to assassinate Prime Minister Smuts, without breathing a word to anybody, including his dutiful wife, Romy (played by Elize Cawood, whose voice is both golden and vulnerable). In the meantime, Leibbrandt sneaks into South Africa via South-West Africa (the present-day Namibia) and seeks to incite members of the Ossewabrandwag to join him in overthrowing the government by committing acts of sabotage on power and railway lines. The faithful are asked to swear a blood oath with the following words, by Henri de la Rochejaquelein.
If I advance, follow me
If I retreat, shoot me
If I die, avenge me.
Ironically, de la Rochejaquelein had been a Royalist in eighteenth-century France, allied with the British to fight against the post-Revolutionary republican government with the aim of restoring the monarchy.
Ryno Hattingh’s performance as Robey Leibbrandt is commendable, but he is given too little to do. The man has to be charismatic, and while the character tries to emulate Adolf Hitler’s elocution when he makes important speeches, the result is not very moving; often he is presented as arrogant and the film does not seek to delve much deeper into his character. On the other hand, as Jan Taillard, Marius Weyers brings a quiet self-confidence to a very human character whose secret mission to defend the prime minister destabilises his life and alienates him from his family.
The film was clearly meant for television, as people usually speak in close-up and story lines that should have been left out completely in the theatrical version show up as unsatisfactory snippets, for example Leibbrandt’s arrival in the Sperrgebiet of South-West Africa, of which a single scene survives, with actress Wilma Stockenström, that doesn’t lead anywhere. Another very bad moment comes early in the film, when Frau Dorfman has a passionate encounter with Leibbrandt: while they make out in slow-motion, actress Grethe Fox’s otherwise stone-cold face is contorted and it seems like she is in agony, and yet the foreplay continues.
It is regrettable that director Manie van Rensburg chose to make a film in English, spoken by a cast of mostly Afrikaans players who all have a very recognisably Afrikaans accent. While an anti-British South African identity does not necessarily imply that the speakers be Afrikaans, it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief when English is used as the lingua franca between members of a very Afrikaans movement such as the Ossewabrandwag.
In the closing credits, the filmmaker seems to acknowledge that the film was made to rehabilitate the reputation of Jan Taillard, whose hard work to protect General Smuts was disregarded by the post-war Nationalist government. The film itself is a very good depiction of life in South Africa in the early 1940s, including the influence of Nazi politics on South Africa during this time, and it is always a pleasure to see individuals such as Smuts brought to life on-screen. The Fourth Reich was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by a South African director in his own country and while the film struggles to overcome its television origins, it is a marvellous reminder of the beauty of the South African landscape and the narrative possibilities that the country’s history offers to filmmakers.