The South African co-production Layla Fourie, a film noir thriller shot partly in Gauteng with support from the GFC, premiered at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale, on Tuesday 12 February to what German newspaper Stern described as “warm applause”.

layla-berlinaleRapulana Seiphemo, Rayna Campell, Rapule Hendricks, Pia Marais, August Diehl and Terry Norton on the red carpet at the Berlinale Main Competition on Tuesday night.

A South African, German, French and Dutch co-production, Layla Fourie is only the second South African film to feature in the Main Competition of the Berlinale, after U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, which won the Golden Bear at the 2005 festival.

The Berlin festival, now in its 63rd year, runs until 17 February in the German capital. One of the most important dates for the international film industry, the Berlinale screens to an audience of over 300 000 and attracts some 20 000 professional visitors from 130 countries, including 4 000 journalists.

Layla Fourie was produced by an international team led by Germany's Pandora Film Produktion in partnership with South Africa’s Dv8 Films and Spier Films, and directed by writer-director Pia Marais.

We first meet Layla (Rayna Campbell) as she applies for a post at a Johannesburg security company who run polygraph tests for suspicious employers. Hired and dispatched at short notice to work at a faraway casino resort, she cannot find a willing child-minder so is forced to take her young son Kane (Rapule Hendricks) with her. A random late-night accident on a lonely outback highway ends with both mother and child agreeing to keep a terrible secret. But Layla’s web of lies starts to unravel when she becomes too close to one of her interviewees, Eugene (August Diehl).

For her third feature Marais – who has lived in Berlin for many years – returned to South Africa, where she grew up, to make this classic thriller. The film was shot in Gauteng and in the coastal regions of KwaZulu-Natal.

Watch: Layla Fourie screens at Berlinale

Already the reviews have been favourable. “Unimaginable to most non-residents, the paranoia that is part of living in South Africa is realized with subtle specificity in Layla Fourie,” critic Guy Lodge wrote in Variety. “An unusual character-driven thriller, the pic centres on a young polygraphist paralyzed with guilt after a hit-and-run accident, though its sharply crafted psychology is a tad too opaque to engage auds as it should.

“Still, as an all-too-rare dose of female perspective from South Africa, this intriguing European co-production should travel extensively on the heels of its Berlin competition bow.”

Stephen Dalton of the Hollywood Reporter had this to say: “The ghosts of South Africa’s brutal past haunt this moody contemporary thriller, a left-field competition contender for the Golden Bear in Berlin this week.

“As in her previous two Europe-shot features, Marais concentrates on a single female protagonist suffering a heavy psychological crisis. While this polished international co-production is her most accomplished work yet, it feels like an ambitious misfire, especially in its latter stages.

“But the stunning South African scenery, so rarely seen on the big screen, and evergreen political back story may prove attractive to discerning overseas viewers if marketed right.”