The Story of Racheltjie de Beer: we all know how it ends
There are some movies you already know the ending of: The Assassination of Jesse James (he dies, like the title says), Zodiac (he still hasn’t been caught), Apollo 13 (the crew returns to earth safely) and Titanic (it sinks).
The same goes for Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer (The Story of Racheltjie de Beer, now streaming on Showmax) – spoiler alert: she dies in the end. If these all came as big unexpected revelations to you, you really should read more.
And now we have to burst another bubble for South Africans: according to thorough research, the story of Racheltjie is just that – a folktale that was based on the true story of an American girl, Hazel Milner, who saved her two younger siblings from a blizzard by sacrificing her own life. Eugene Marais wrote the story of Racheltjie around 1920. South Africa had just come out of World War I and Afrikaners needed a hero to inspire them.
In its most basic form, the storyline goes as follows: It is somewhere in the 1800s and the De Beer family (Racheltjie, her dad, her little brother and a calf named Frikkie) are traveling alone by ox wagon when it breaks down in the eastern Free State. They seek shelter at a local farm house. It happens to be one of the worst winters in five decades, and dark, snow-laden clouds roll in over the Drakensberg mountain range. Tragedy strikes when Frikkie goes AWOL. And we all know Racheltjie’s fate.
So what exactly is the point of watching a movie if we already know how it ends?
*puts on best The Dude accent from Big Lebowski and takes a drag from a spliff*: “It is about the journey, man..”
But let’s get serious for a bit, because this drama is also so much more. At its heart, the story of Racheltjie de Beer is one of true love and, ultimately, selfless sacrifice, but once you peel the layers back, you discover interesting themes.
Early in the story it becomes quite clear that single father Herman de Beer (played by Stian Bam, who won Best Actor for his role at the 2019 Silwerskerm Festival) is running from a dark past that haunts him, rather than travelling to a destination. His wife, Marie, suffered from depression and committed suicide not long after Racheltjie’s little brother’s birth.
This makes us realise that mental illness has been around since before Die Groot Trek and only got fancy names in recent times.
Similarly, the farmer’s wife, Jacoba (Sandra Prinsloo), suffers from what seems to be an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. She’s old, and “not all there”, and yet, it’s Jacoba who knows Racheltjie’s whereabouts when she goes missing – but nobody pays her any attention.
The movie also deals with important themes such as the dynamics within (broken) families, parenting, loss, forgiveness and new beginnings, all wrapped up in a heartbreaking coming-of-age story.
Racheltjie (Zonika de Vries, who took last year’s Young Actress Award at the Silwerskerm Festival) had to grow up fast with the untimely death of her mother, fulfilling the role to her little brother under harsh conditions while still a kid herself.
She briefly finds a mother figure in the farmer’s daughter, Sara Lundt (played by Antoinette Louw), who guides her through her transition into womanhood, because Racheltjie’s father is still so grief-stricken that he is unable to give her what she needs.
We shouldn’t blame him for his failures, but we can’t help it, especially since the children are forbidden from talking about their mother. Racheltjie struggles to remember what her mom looked like. Remembrance becomes an integral theme, and the movie itself serves as a reminder that these kinds of stories need to be told and retold, so that future generations are able to cherish them.
“South Africa is a treasure chest of folk tales, which teach us wisdom, empathy and courage.” – Antoinette Louw, who plays Sara
The Story of Racheltjie de Beer, directed by Matthys Boshoff and based on the novel by Brett Michael Innes, who co-wrote the screenplay, is brilliantly crafted and assembled in an unusual way. Having won both the Production Design and Visual Effects awards at last year’s Silwerskerm Festival as well as a Golden Horn for Cinematography at the 2020 SAFTAs, it is loaded with foreboding and almost fantasy-like clues that anticipate the ending.
Plants have mystical qualities, as Racheltjie teaches her brother: rosemary is for remembrance, proteas are for bravery, and nightshade is death. And then there is Lazarus (Sputla Sebogodi), the farmhand whose name has a crystal-clear connotation.
The debate should not be whether the story of Racheltjie de Beer is fiction or not.
The most dramatic element of this movie has to be the ever-present, growing storm. It serves as a larger than life, out-of-control character of biblical proportions, perhaps symbolising Racheltjie’s mother, Marie. It ultimately leads to Herman’s erratic behaviour and decision to leave the farm during the storm, which triggers all the events that lead to Racheltjie’s death.
Each character goes through a transition and that goes for the storm as well as the landscape, which brilliantly transforms from summer to what looks like the last episode of Game of Thrones. The filming, editing, colour treatment and sound design (another two SAFTAs went to the movie for Sound Design and Original Score) are truly something else.
The debate should not be whether the story of Racheltjie de Beer is fiction or not. It’s a tale that has struck a chord with South Africans for generations: just open Google Maps and you’ll find three streets and one school named after her in Pretoria alone. One could rather make the argument that South Africa’s Titanic moment has arrived. We all know the ending to this film but we can also really appreciate how they got us there.