Mystery as a genre is its own worst enemy, mainly because no weird answer can ever be as satisfying as a weird question. Countless horror and science-fiction plots have amounted to a dwindling descent from taut suspense to pap explication. Whatever the Thing turns out to be, it was much scarier when it was just a Thing.
But what’s the alternative? You can’t just bunk the obligation of revelation and leave your audience as befuddled at the end as they were at the start. Nobody pays good money to endure that kind of treatment; we are permanently befuddled by reality itself, and don’t need a movie to replicate that feeling. The trick, maybe, is to protect the mystery for as long as possible, and then to give us more than mere answers by the time the game is up.
The South African writer-director Derick Muller nails this delicate procedure in Wesens (“Beings” in Afrikaans), his audacious and absorbing debut feature, which began streaming on Showmax this week.
The film proceeds from a premise as dramatically solid as a meteorite. A batch of old 16mm and 8mm film reels and audio spools have been found in a deceased estate. They contain footage recorded by a quartet of security policemen and scientists in 1967; these four men were sent to analyse an unexplained object encountered by a farmer in the silent heart of the Klein Karoo. The footage of their mission, shot on two cameras by the two scientists, is the movie we are watching. (Thanks to some canny grading and production design, every shot feels tangibly mid-sixties, and because tripods are often used, Blair Witch-style motion sickness is not on the menu.)
In the opening scene, in the car on the drive to the farm, a pot of political heat is set on the boil: between Majoor Viljoen (Morné Visser) the blustering, racist cop leading the operation, and the maverick weapons engineer, the tentatively counter-cultural Kuyper (Pietie Beyers). The two men bicker about space exploration, evolution, the history of the San.The exchange descends into grim silence as the car zooms between kloofs and koppies. But a big thematic target — the livid scar of violence in both the landscape and the Majoor’s mindscape — has been marked.
On arrival, the team interviews Sakkie Haarhoff, the brandy-soaked sheep farmer who has sounded the alarm, played with fine comic flair by Albert Maritz. Oom Sakkie reports that he told the luminous object to fuck off, and then shot it. But it’s still out there, somewhere on the farm, awaiting verification and categorisation. The burning question for Viljoen is whether it’s a lethal Soviet prezzie.
Let’s say no more about the plot itself. For a while, director Muller keeps the tone both sinister and comical — until, at a certain point, you realise that all the comedy has fled the scene. And then the real audacity emerges.
It’s a disarmingly strange film, or to be more accurate, it’s a film strangely immune to the cramped and cowardly formulae of movie financiers. Wesens had to be independent. Because Muller runs a commercial production house in Cape Town as his day job, he could muster the technical skills to make it on the cheap, and he had an idea that would make it work cheaply.
Some viewers won’t appreciate the unashamedly emotional tenor of the climax, or its rerouting of an unspeakable history into the treacherous territory of symbolism. That’s to be expected: when you go in for mythopoetics, you are jumping the shark by definition. But we all have our sharks to jump. And if you don’t like someone else’s myth, the best response is to write your own one.