NOWHERE IN AFRICA
Directed by Caroline Link (BEYOND SILENCE) who also wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Stefanie Zweig NOWHERE IN AFRICA is about a Jewish family fleeing Nazi Germany for Kenya in 1938. Although a bit slow going at times, it is overall a compelling tale of outsiders trying to survive in a foreign land. Leaving their comfortable life in Frankfurt, the Redlich family tries to adjust— some of them better than others. Wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler) likes the finer things in life and has difficulty adjusting to her new status, while her husband Walter (Merab Ninidze), who has been in Kenya longer than the rest of the family, was once a lawyer. He is trying to manage a farm and failing miserably at it. When Walter requests Jettel pack a refrigerator to bring to Kenya when she joins him there she brings an evening gown instead—perhaps for the tea dance in the bush? Meanwhile, daughter Regina (Lea Kurka as a child and Karoline Eckertz as a teenager) immediately adapts; befriending the Redlich’s Masai cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) who adores her. The story is actually told through her teenage eyes. Displacement is the liet motif of this film.
Ever present is the feeling of being an outsider. For instance, when Regina goes to boarding school in Nairobi on her first day the Headmaster insists that all Jewish students stand aside so the rest of the student body can recite the "Lord’s Prayer." After that, they are ostracized in that cruel way that children can be to each other. Regina and her one friend Ilse are forced to sit at their own lunch table with another student. It’s moments like this the wounded nerd in all of us cringe. The Africans group all whites together, not making distinctions between German or British, Jewish or Gentile. It’s interesting that only the whites in the film make these distinctions.
The Redlich’s marriage doesn’t fare that well either at first. Walters accuses Jettel of only sleeping with him when he was a lawyer. After all the Germans living in Kenya are interned in Nairobi, Jettel sleeps with a German speaking British officer in order to arrange another farm for Walter to manage. By the end of the war, the dynamics have changed among the family members as well as their feelings toward Kenya. Jettel wants to stay in Kenya and Walter wants to go back to Germany to be a judge. The strains on their relationship that adapting to Kenya have created contribute to a palpable disconnectedness between the couple. But as sometimes happens in a relationship, overcoming difficulties together creates a stronger bond and the performances create a feeling of authenticity. Regina is the glue that seems to hold the family together.
Standouts: the cinematography by Gernot Roll which captures the countryside of Kenya. It is breath-taking and the cinematography has a lyrical quality that reinforces the manner in which this tale is told. Also the performance by Juliane Köhler. Not since Hanna Schygulla (THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN) has a German actress made such an impression on me. Köhler’s transformation from uptight, pampered bourgeois wife to a farmer supporting her family is terrific. One pivotal scene where Jettel is faced with a plague of locusts attacking her crops is where she really shines. The winner of this year's Foreign Film Oscar is well deserved. For once the Academy got it right.