This film is often classified as the first South African cult movie,
an insane asylum-set satire that remains an arrestingly bizarre
spectacle, outdoing similarly themed films like
CONFIGURATION and KING OF HEARTS in provocation and sheer
To fully understand this movie requires at least a
smidgen of knowledge of South Africa’s apartheid era, which
writer-director Jans Rautenbach was satirizing. His previous effort,
1969’s KATRINA, has been called the most controversial film ever made in
South Africa due to its questioning of apartheid-instituted racism, and
FAREWELL JOHNNY furthers those concerns, albeit in a more symbolic and
For whatever reason, FAREWELL JOHNNY (JANNIE TOTSIENS;
1970) is little known outside South Africa, despite its exalted
reputation therein--it’s been called the “CITIZEN KANE of South African
films,” a claim that may well be accurate.
Johnny, a catatonic college professor, is brought by
his parents to a strangely gothic, cat-filled insane asylum. Its inmates
include Franz, a military man who thinks he’s still at war; Linda, a
grown woman who behaves like a little girl; and Aunty, a witchy
middle-aged lady. There’s also a one-armed painter, an elderly judge, a
black servant who serves as a receptacle for the inmates’ racism, and an
absurdly straight-laced psychiatrist who oversees the asylum, and is as
nutty in his own way as his patients.
In this atmosphere of unfettered madness Johnny emerges
from his shell somewhat, although when his mother visits he retreats
back into catatonia. He starts up a tentative romance with Linda, who
identifies him as “the man in the moon.” The other inmates oppose the
relationship, not least because one of them, the schizophrenic English
gal Liz, is in love with Johnny herself.
Auntie especially disapproves, believing Johnny is
“Satan.” Aunty and Franz gang up on Johnny and drop him into the asylum
basement, where he’s attacked by cats. He manages to escape, only to
confront a much greater horror: the asylum director wants to have Johnny
discharged. He, however, wants nothing more than to stay put, as he’s
“learned how to love” in the asylum.
During a new year’s eve party the director announces
that he’s going to discontinue psychoanalyzing his patients in favor of
a more impersonal drug regime. The following morning Liz is found dead,
having committed suicide because of her thwarted love for Johnny. A mock
trial by Auntie, Franz and the judge is held against Johnny, who’s found
guilty of having caused Liz’s death, and given a mighty stiff sentence…
Highly fragmentary and episodic in nature, FAREWELL
JOHNNY is anything but predictable. In place of a linear narrative,
writer-director Jans Rautenbach lavishes copious amounts of screen time
on individual characters and their delusions, which are depicted more
often than not via off-screen sound effects (a la THE NOAH).
Each character represents an aspect of South African
society in the 1960s (while the titular Johnny allegedly represents Jans
Rautenbach), and all are extremely well cast. The dialogue could
admittedly have used some work (example: “my love is stronger
than your pills!”), but otherwise FAREWELL JOHNNY is an impeccable
depiction of insanity both personal and societal.
The proceedings are marked by stark, noirish
photography that places great emphasis on light and shadow. Typical are
shots through stairway columns and lamps, with various objects
occupying, and often obscuring, the foreground.
The art direction is also integral to the overall
effect. The bleak, claustrophobic interior where most of the film takes
place rivals most movie haunted houses in its overtly gothic
architecture, and there’s a stained glass window whose multi-hued
illumination enhances the insane atmosphere. For good measure, a wealth
of phallic balloons and creepy marionettes are also present, and
generously displayed throughout (particularly during the peerlessly
creepy opening credits sequence).
It makes sense that a movie about lunatics should
itself appear to have been made by crazy people, and that’s definitely
the case with FAREWELL JOHNNY.
FAREWELL JOHNNY (JANNIE TOTSIENS)
Director/Producer/Screenwriter: Jans Rautenbach
Cinematography: Dave Dunn-Yarker, Koos Roets
Cast: Cobus Rossouw, Katrinka Heyns, Lourens Schultz, Phillip Swanepoel,
Jill Kirkland, Jacques Loots, Don Leonard, Hermien Dommisse, Patrick
Mynhardt, Berry Botha, Sandra Kotze, Jan Bruyns, Dulcie van den Bergh