'Shepherds and Butchers': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Distant Horizon
Hangmen also die.

Steve Coogan plays a lawyer battling the death penalty in Oliver Schmitz’s South Africa-set courtroom drama.

The traumas of capital punishment during apartheid-era South Africa are channeled into a weighty courtroom drama in Shepherds and Butchers, which stars an utterly straight-faced Steve Coogan as an attorney trying to prevent a prison hangman from being hanged himself.

Directed by Olivier Schmitz — whose 1987 film Mapantsula remains a pivotal work of anti-apartheid cinema – and adapted by writer-producer Brian Cox from Chris Marnewick’s novel, this well-intentioned if somewhat heavy-handed historical affair is anchored by Coogan’s solid lead turn, with support from Andrea Riseborough as a hard-hitting state prosecutor and promising newcomer Garion Dowds as an executioner who could wind up facing the gallows. With the feel of a polished TV movie, the Berlinale Panorama premiere could drum up deals worldwide, though more likely for the small screen.

An opening action sequence shows 19-year-old Leon Labuschagne (Dowds) driving like mad through the rain and nearly swerving into a minibus filled with reveling soccer players, all of them black. Without warning, Leon viciously guns them down and is soon charged with the coldblooded murder of seven innocent victims.

It sounds like a classic open-and-shut case — that is until British barrister and death-penalty critic John Weber (Coogan) decides to take it on, using Leon’s traumatizing experience as a death-row sentry to defend a young man who may have acted out in a moment of mad rage brought on by witnessing, and abating, so many legal executions.

Taking on the form of a vintage courthouse thriller, Shepherds and Butchers starts off on rather shaky ground, with much exposition in the opening sequences but little in terms of intriguing characterization or cinematic ingenuity.

Yet as the narrative progresses and we gradually learn more about Leon’s harrowing employment, the issues tackled by former lawyer Marnewick in his book come rushing to the surface, challenging a long local history of capital punishment whose casualties were for the most part black, with 164 put to death in the record year of 1987 (when the story takes place).

A series of grueling flashbacks reveal how Leon, who was only 17 at the time, found himself hurled into death-row duties at the notorious Pretoria Central Prison. With little training and nothing in terms of psychological assistance, he’s forced to care for the condemned until eventually accompanying them to the gallows, participating in group executions that are depicted with brutal realism. No sound effect, facial close-up or shot of leaking bodily fluids is spared by Schmitz, who clearly wants to emphasize the barbarity of a practice that was finally banned by the South African courts in 1996. 

It’s certainly not the most subtle of approaches, and Shepherds and Butchers suffers at times under the weight of its subject matter, denouncing both a legal and prison system that any intelligent viewer with hindsight can deplore. There are a few moments — such as when Weber meets the grieving mothers of Leon’s victims — where the issue is tackled from another angle, but the film mostly preaches to the converted, even if it reveals with historical gravity how capital punishment was another way that apartheid severely discriminated against South Africa’s black population.

There’s more nuance to be found in the constant back-and-forth between the trial’s two dueling attorneys, as Weber tries to flesh out what seems like an impossible defense strategy against the cold and clever remonstrations of Kathleen Marais (Riseborough), the government prosecutor who seems at first to have the case in the bag.

Playing one of his least comical roles ever, Coogan does a good job conveying the righteousness of his character’s long uphill battle against the institution that both built and broke his client, although we unfortunately learn next-to-nothing about Weber beyond his deep-seated convictions about the issues at hand.

Riseborough (Birdman) is harder to read as a lawyer who wants to win but can’t ignore the cruel realities that her opponent is constantly underlining, and the English actress (speaking in a South African accent) manages to say quite a lot in a few simple reaction shots. Dowds is also memorable as a killer who tries to hide his psychological damage until it all comes bursting out in a handful of very movie-like moments.

Tech credits are polished in a very classical manner, with cinematography by Leah Striker a bit overlit during the courtroom scenes, if more effectively shadowed in the prison sequences. Production designer Mike Berg does an excellent job recreating the terror of a functioning gallows, while sound designer Nicky de Beer makes sure we hear every tug of the rope and crack of the neck.    

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Videovision Entertainment, Distant Horizon
Cast: Steve Coogan, Andrea Riseborough, Garion Dowds
Director: Oliver Schmitz
Screenwriter: Brian Cox, based on the novel by Chris Marnewick
Producers: Anant Singh, Brian Cox
Executive producers: Robert Naidoo, Sudhir Pragjee, Sanjeev Singh, Andrew Bonamour, Andrew Gill
Director of photography: Leah Striker
Production designer: Mike Berg
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editor: Megan Gill
Composer: Paul Hepker
Casting director: Moonyeenn Lee
Sales: WestEnd Films

In English, Afrikaans
Not rated, 107 minutes