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Nowhere In Africa (Not Rated)
Zeitgeist Films
Official Site
Director: Caroline Link
Producer: Peter Herrmann
Written by: Caroline Link; based on Stefanie Zweig’s novel
Cast: Juliane Köhler, Merab Ninidze, Matthias Habich, Sidede Onyulo, Karoline Eckertz, Lea Kurka

Rating: out of 5

Nowhere In Africa won five Golden Lolas, German film awards, and the 2002 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. It’s nowhere near as good as Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her, which, criminally, was not nominated in this category. It is, however, another entry in the genre of experiences of European Jewry in World War II. There are now lots of good films on the experiences of European Jews—The Grey Zone, Avalon, Alan And Naomi, The Pianist, and yes, even X-Men—and while this is a welcome addition to that list, it is even more a coming-of-age film. The charm is that all the characters grow and the person most who comes of age isn’t the child.

Thankfully, Nowhere In Africa is relatively schmaltz-free. What sentimental moments it does possess have to do with Africa. Caroline Link makes Africa a character in its own right, but it’s also personified in the relationship between Regina (portrayed by Kurka and Eckertz) and Owuor (Onyulo), the family’s cook. It’s a pretty common movie situation—a little white kid whose great love for a wise, patient family servant broadens his/her mind and heart in ways his/her parents, though decent folks, never could. In this case it stands also as a metaphor for how wise, patient Africa works her wiles on the “civilized” Europeans, rendering them more accepting. At one point a protests that the situation back home can’t possibly be as dangerous as all that: “Germany is so rich in culture, land of Göethe and Schiller…” It can’t happen here, not in the land of Beethoven and Brahms. The contrast of gracious living in a cultured Germany embarked on genocide and a relatively peaceful Africa lacking in technology and modcons nicely makes its point about our definitions of civilization without using a sledgehammer to drive it home.

Mostly the story of the Redlichs’ eight years in Africa is told through the Regina’s eyes, and the movie loses some steam when it’s not following her. It’s a very pretty movie, in that way that movies about Africa often are—broad vistas, some aerial shots that scream “See the untamed beauty!”—but Link resisted the temptation to have, say, a herd of something thundering across the plain.

“Once I had a farm in Africa.” For Europeans, these words are the epitome of romance, but for the Redlichs, a middle-class family of non-observant Jews who flee Nazi Germany, the romance of Africa is short-lived. Walter (Ninidze) has gone ahead to Kenya, finding work and a home on a cattle station. He sends money for his wife Jettel (Köhler) and daughter Regina (Kurka) to join him. Regina, who had been a fearful, shy child in Germany, blossoms in the new land.

Jettel, however, cannot adjust to the change in her circumstances. There’s no place in the new world order for a woman whose accomplishments are being a charming and gracious hostess. Having no clear sense of her identity and experiencing deprivations for possibly the first time in her life, Jettel is by turns petulant and bitter. Her resentments take a toll on the marriage. Let me pause here to praise Juliane Köhler (Aimee And Jaguar), who has a nice feel for playing what I shall, with political incorrectness, call Blondies—daft, self-centered women. She’s not afraid to make Jettel both strong-minded and unattractively spoiled, mercurial, and dense. It’s wonderful how not noble Jettel is. Köhler (props to Link, who also wrote the screenplay) makes her the most interesting character in the movie.

Walter has a firm grasp on exactly how bad things are for Germany’s Jews, and what a narrow escape they have had. Formerly a lawyer, he knows he’s a piss-poor rancher. As he tries to learn from those who have, after all, lived in Africa, and to make a life, one wishes he had a helpmeet instead of this spoiled woman. It’s hard not to feel for him as one feels for Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennett, who in his youth married a pretty face and then learnt that there was nothing behind it that he could respect. Yet Jettel is the most interesting because she has the most human foibles and she grows past them. Everyone can respect that. I did note, however, that Jettel’s acceptance and self-sufficiency seemed to rise in correlation with the family’s rising prosperity. They move from the cattle station to a maize farm, where the declaration of WWII causes the British to intern all German nationals. The menfolk wind up in camps, but for Jettel and Regina, billeted in a swanky hotel with the rest of the women and children, temporary internment is a dramatic lifestyle improvement.

The Redlichs have more many cultural adventures, and in the end, make their peace with Germany, with Africa, and with each other.

Their African sojourn, beginning before WWII and lasting for a little while after, makes such an interesting story that I wish I could read it. Stefanie Zweig’s novel, however, isn’t available in English. The best I can do is to see Nowhere In Africa again and again.

--Roxanne Bogucka


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