Nowhere in Africa
Directed by Caroline Link. Starring Juliane Köhler, Merab Ninidze, Lea Kurka, Matthias Habich, Sidede Onyulo, Karoline Eckertz. (2001, NR, 141 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 23, 2003
Thrust into an alien environment and bereft of creature comforts, cultural commonalties, or even basic language skills, most people will either seek to flee or draw themselves up and inward, snail-like, in an attempt to hold on to the known. That’s the crux of Nowhere in Africa, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film and a recipient of no less than five Golden Lolas (the equivalent of our Academy Awards) in its native Germany. And it’s easy to see why the accolades rained down on the sprawling, 141-minute film. Adapted from Stefanie Zweig’s memoir of the same name, Nowhere in Africa follows the tribulations of the German-Jewish Redlich family as they’re forced to flee the increasingly inhospitable tide of Nazism in 1937 and relocate, virtually penniless, on the Kenyan veldt. Here father Walter (Ninidze), formerly a lawyer, toils on a British-owned farm (Kenya was still a British crown colony at this point) with precious little idea of what he’s doing, and only the abiding desire to keep his family whole and alive. We first encounter the Redlich family at their upscale German home, where mother Jettel (Köhler) flits between the guests at a family party, young daughter Regina (Kurka) by her side. Walter is already in Kenya, and the rest of the family soon follows. Once in Africa, their differing views of not only their social station – upper class, well-bred, and university-educated – come quickly to the fore, placing a strain on the Redrich marriage as Walter, prescient about the Nazis increasingly violent anti-Semitism at home, works at back-breaking farm labor while Jettel refuses even to unpack her china, sure in her heart that the family’s emigration is only temporary. "Surely our friends at home will get rid of Hitler," she muses aloud, blithely unaware of how grave the German situation has become. It’s Regina who first takes to the earthy fever dream of Kenya, bonding instantly with the farm’s Masai cook Owuor (Onyulo), whose easy smile and ingratiating nature fail to become dented even when the haughty Jettel treats him like a common manservant. The clash of cultures is most apparent in the first third of Nowhere in Africa, and by the time the family is interred in a British enemy alien camp (ludicrously, in light of their Judaism) in the second act, it’s become clear that their dream of returning to Germany any time soon is simply not an option anymore. There are actually three separate stories going on simultaneously in Link’s film – four if you count the magnificent African wilderness among them, and why not? Thanks to the superior performances by all four leads (including incredibly expressive Karoline Eckertz, who appears as the teenage Regina midway through), Nowhere in Africa is a meditation on everything from race and class and cultural impermanence to the inexhaustible malleability of youth. It’s exactly the sort of import you’d expect to walk off with an Academy Award, too; Niki Reiser’s meaty orchestral score, which incorporates traditional African voices, and Gernot Roll’s gorgeous cinematography that drenches the frame in warm, golden hues, help bring the complexity of the storyline to the fore. If there were nothing else to it, Nowhere in Africa would still look like the proverbial million bucks. The film’s only drawback is its lengthy running time – it could easily have withstood 10 or 15 minutes of editing along the way – but then again, it’s apparent (and perhaps excusable) from the finished film’s epic emotional scope why Link chose to run long.