Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Nowhere in Africa


DIRECTOR: Caroline Link
GENRE: Historical Drama
AWARDS: 2003 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
2003 Golden Globe nominee

In German with English subtitles; some English
US Theatrical Release: March 2003
US DVD Release: Sept. 30, 2003

Nowhere in Africa/Nirgendwo in Afrika
Out of Africa, German style

There are a few inevitable “Out of Africa” moments in Caroline Link's NOWHERE IN AFRICA. The German film is also about a European woman who confronts a very different way of life on a remote farm in Africa, but this German movie is also about the German past. Its German perspective links a time and place that few people would expect to be connected. NOWHERE IN AFRICA is based on the true experiences of a Jewish girl whose family was forced to leave Nazi Germany and start a new life in Kenya.

Silas Kerati as Jogona andKaroline Eckertz as the
teen-age Regina.
Photo: Zeitgeist Films Ltd.

In 1938 the real-life Stefanie Zweig was six years old and living with her parents in Leobschutz, Upper Silesia (then part of Germany, now in Poland). Her Jewish father was a successful lawyer who was compelled to give up his comfortable, prosperous life and move his family to Africa to spare them the disaster he saw coming in his homeland. Zweig later wrote two books about her experiences in Kenya (Nirgendwo in Afrika) and in Germany after her return (Irgendwo in Deutschland).

Caroline Link's NIRGENDWO IN AFRIKA film, based on Zweig's autobigraphical novel of the same name, focuses more on the adults in the fictional Redlich family, but their daughter Regina still plays an important role. As the Nazis increase their persecution of the Jews in Germany, Jettel Redlich (Juliane Köhler of “Aimee & Jaguar”) heads off to Africa with her daughter to join her husband. Once in Kenya, Jettel (YETT-el) at first does not adapt well to her new and exotic evironment, and she refuses to accept the reality of what is happening to Jews like her back in Germany. On top of his own difficulties, her husband Walter (Merab Ninidze) has a hard time convincing her that they may have to be “nowhere in Africa” for a longer period of time than she thinks. It is painful to watch the culturally insensitive Jettel discriminating against the native Kenyans in much the same way the Nazis discriminate against the Jews.

Lea Kurka as the young Regina
and Sidede Onyulo as Owuor.
Photo: Zeitgeist Films Ltd.

While dad is doing the best he can to survive and mom is resisting at almost every point, their young daughter eagerly begins to absorb the language and culture around her. Once the war begins, life for the Redlichs gets even more complicated. As German nationals in British Kenya, the German Jews ironically find themselves imprisoned, albeit under far better conditions than in the Nazi death camps. Soon, however, Walter is eligible to join the British army and he goes off to fight the Germans.

As this beautifully photographed film progresses, we see Regina grow into a teenager, becoming increasingly out of touch with the German language and culture her family has left behind. The film shows how the family comes together against the background of scenic Africa. With her husband off in the war, Jettel becomes more self-assured and the parents begin to drift apart. One of the film's strengths is the way it shows the ups and downs of the family's relationship and the growth and changes in its characters.

In the end, this is the story of how the family manages to cope with living under less than ideal conditions in Africa and to come together before they return to Germany. Ironically, it is Jettel who now resists returning to their homeland and facing the culture that drove them out in 1938. Her husband, never comfortable as a farmer, longs to return to Germany and accept a judgeship. Walter now must try to persuade both his wife and daughter that returning is a good idea.

NOWHERE IN AFRICA is a well-crafted film. Director Caroline Link (“Beyond Silence”/“Jenseits der Stille”) and cinematographer Gernot Roll have done a nice job of capturing the Kenya of the 1940s (actually filmed in today's Kenya), and their actors are very talented. But when it's all over, a few things seem to be missing. Somehow we never really get into the souls of the two main adult characters, and there are a few minor plot threads that seem to start, then fizzle out and go nowhere. The film also doesn't have time to go into the problems Regina (Stefanie Zweig in real life) encountered after returning to her former German culture after all those years in Africa. (Maybe in a sequel based on Zweig's Irgendwo in Deutschland?) But these are minor complaints about a very good film.

Written and Directed by Caroline Link
Based on the autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig
Starring: Juliane Köhler (as Jettel Redlich), Merab Ninidze (as Walter Redlich), Sidede Onyulo (as Owuor), Karoline Eckertz (as older Regina), Lea Kurka (as young Regina)