Bram Fischer (2017)
Directed by: Jean van de Velde | 121 minutes | biography | Actors: Peter Paul Muller, Antoinette Louw, Sello Motloung, Sean Venter, Izel Bezuidenhout, Hannes Brummer, Shahir Chundra, Deon Coetzee, Paul Davies, José Domingos, Willie Esterhuizen, Ashish Gangapersad, Zak Hendrikz, Eduard Horn, Daniel Janks, Conrad Kemp , Graeme Kriega, George Lebese, Kamogelo Legoadi, Phenyo Moholola, Josias Moleele, Fezile Mpela, Gontse Ntshegang, Momelezi V. Ntshiba, John-Henry Opperman, Melanie Pienaar, Russel Savadier, Thapelo Sebogodi, Getmore Solly, Elizabeth, Sello Sylvaine Strike, Jana Strydom, Johan Swart, Hendrik van den Berg, Leroux van Diemen, Rudo Van Diemen, Nita Van Niekerk, Greg Viljoen, Morné Visser
‘Water is stronger than stone’, lawyer Bram Fischer tells the defendants of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), during their trial in the Rivonia trial 1964. With that he actually says that you get further with nonviolent resistance than with terrorism. The nonviolent resistance would become Mandela’s trademark in the years that followed. Who is Bram Fischer (1908-1975) and what was his role in the struggle against the Apartheid regime in South Africa? Jean van de Velde wants to answer this question in his film ‘Bram Fischer’ (2017), in which he focuses on the Rivonia process. In ‘Bram Fischer’ Van de Velde cleverly manages to combine three genres. Because the film is not only a biopic, but also a court drama and a thriller. Fischer appears to be more closely involved with the – then banned – communist party and the ANC than is generally known and the lawyer and his family are continuously monitored. Van de Velde makes an understated, stylish film adaptation of a crucial chapter in modern South African history and introduces us to a man whose name may mean little to us, but who played a central role in the anti-Apartheid movement.
The film opens with a police interrogation, in which the prisoner admits, after severe torture, where the leaders of the ANC are hiding. In a farm near the village of Rivonia, Nelson Mandela (impressive role by Sello Motloung) and his companions are arrested. They were charged with the death penalty, partly because the laws of the Apartheid regime prohibited them from conspiring and recruiting people for violent revolutionary purposes. The defendants are defended by lawyer Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller, the only Dutchman in a cast that is otherwise entirely made up of South Africans), a man from a prominent Afrikaner family who has led a double life since his student days. In secret, he has been a leading figure within the communist movement for years and in that capacity works closely with the ANC. By sheer coincidence, he was not present in Rivonia the day Mandela and his associates were arrested. It is up to Fischer to prevent Mandela and the others from being sentenced to death, but it is not made easy for him in his legal battle. Moreover, there is a constant danger that Fischer himself will be exposed. The fact that the police are on his tail is evident from the fact that both he and his wife Molly (Antoinette Louw) and their three children are constantly spied on.
Peter Paul Muller, isn’t that the actor we mainly know from his role as folk singer Martin Morero in “Gooische Vrouwen”? As exuberant as he can be in roles that demand it, he is so subdued and subtle in ‘Bram Fischer’. As the film progresses, we get to know the person behind the human rights lawyer a little better. Muller reportedly worked very hard to bring this role as convincingly as possible, and studied extensively to express himself as well as possible in Afrikaans, which suits him just fine. He gets excellent resistance from his South African opponents, whereby even the smallest roles are well fulfilled. We draw special attention to Sello Motloung, who intrigues as the young Mandela. Where other (more famous) actors sometimes want to force to imitate ‘Madiba’ as realistically as possible, the role comes naturally to him. Van de Velde, who not only directed but is also partly responsible for the script, dared to present the story as truthfully as possible; only at the end things are a bit romanticized. He trusts that the facts speak for themselves and that his clever combination of biography, court drama and spy thriller will keep the viewer’s attention. And he was absolutely right about that.
Bram Fischer is a man you take in, because he cannot be categorized. This also applies to the film that Jean van de Velde made about his life. With a starring role for Peter Paul Muller, who was recently nominated for a Golden Calf for this role. In 2011, he already won the golden statue for his role of – indeed – Martin Morero in ‘Gooische Vrouwen’ (2011). Then he refused the prize, because he says he has ‘nothing with awards’. Whether he wants to pick up the statue this time, only he knows…