Nirgendwo in Afrika

(Nowhere in Africa, Germany - 2001)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Juliane Kohler, Merab Ninidze, Sidede Onyulo, Matthias Habich, Lea Kurka, Karoline Eckertz
Genre: Drama
Director: Caroline Link
Screenplay: Caroline Link from Stephanie Zweig's novel
Cinematography: Gernot Roll
Composer: Niki Reiser

Caroline Link’s sensitive, multi-layered look at a German Jewish family fleeing the “civilized” world at the dawn of the holocaust for more compassionate, even if by default, treatment in rural Kenya. Though based on the autobiography of Stephanie Zweig, the tale actually alternates point of view to depict each family member from their perspective rather than seeing everything through the eyes of narrator and Zweig stand-in Regina. Link allows the characters to exist and the audience to imagine a great deal about their lives, much less the goings on in their native land which are conveyed only through letters from family members who weren’t lucky enough to get out in time and bits of news and gossip Walter picks up. By believing in Zweig’s story and characters Link has the confidence to allow it to calmly unfold, never resorting to the usual hamfisted highlighting.

Caroline Link isn’t a great artist, but essentially every film made a film in Africa looks gorgeous, especially one shot by Gernot Roll of Heimat fame, and this isn’t one of those postcard films. What makes Link good is she not only tells stories of people you don’t usually see, for instance Beyond Silence where the daughter becoming a skilled clarinet player is actually alienating to her parents as they are deaf-mutes, she does so with depth and dimension. She’s more concerned that we understand why a person acts a certain way than what we think of their action, creating gray areas and moral dilemmas rather than the usual Hollywood cartoons. The people are very human, and thus have their good and bad moments, but are always developing, ever so slightly, rather than being narrowly defined in black and white terms by one or two things they do.

Link’s films always deal with family, showing whatever their intentions the members often simultaneously lift you up and tear you down. Contending with their desires and demands is incredibly difficult, and every member can learn from one another, regardless of their age. Regina (Lea Kurka & Karoline Eckertz) is the cliched smart child who is more mature than the adults. Only 5 when she left her homeland, she’s immediately intrigued by the natives, curious to understand if not participate in their culture, especially since there are no other white kids. The cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), the very picture of benevolence, immediately befriends her, thus providing the smooth transition her accustomed to the easy life parents could never be expected to make.

Walter (Merab Ninidze) was a lawyer in Germany who never did any manual labor, but now lording over the natives as bwana is what’s available. He doesn’t become a good farmer because he’s not interested, he’s an idealist who is always searching for something better, but he sucks it up. Jettel (Juliane Kohler) is a snooty condescending bourgeois who spends the money Walter sent to import a refrigerator on a useless evening gown, complaining endlessly once she gets to Africa including expecting the natives to learn German if they want to talk to her. She looks down on the Africans in a somewhat similar fashion to the way the Germans look down on the Jews at home, but slowly grows accustomed to her new life, becoming determined and resolved to making the farm work. In the end, the fact Walter was in Kenya first causes much of the strife in their marriage, as the spouse’s go through similar views, but rarely during the same time frame.

Though one would expect Regina to be the focus, Nowhere in Africa seems to mostly be Jettel’s film. She’s the character who changes the most, realizing the country she once loved is ruled by narrow minded simpletons who longing for everyone to look similar to and believe in what they do, and thus learning to cherish difference. Though not as talented as Link’s other favorite actress Sylvie Testud, Jettel also stands out due to Juliane Kohler giving the most intriguing and dimensioned performance.

In a sense, Nowhere in Africa is a typical tale of resilience, though there are no goals or destinations and resolution isn’t of the utmost importance. There are hundreds of reasons life isn’t ideal, but ultimately how you adapt and what you make of it is the real story. The film is more effective for instead dealing broadly with countless themes and concepts including identity, belonging, acceptance, displacement, alienation, betrayal, and maturation.

Though I often envision the bogus Academy ballot listing the names for foreign film and documentary with an asterisk next to the requisite holocaust entry, if you award enough of these films some are bound to even be good. Nowhere in Africa is a bit different from their typical awarded fare, as Walter & Jettel don’t practice or associate themselves by religion, they always considered themselves to be Germans, and only wished to be treated as such by others.



* Copyright 2008 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *