NOWHERE IN AFRICA(Nirgendwo in Afrika)

(director/writer: Caroline Link; screenwriter: from the novel by Stefanie Zweig; cinematographer: Gernot Roll; editor: Patricia Rommel; music: Niki Reiser; cast: Juliane Köhler (Jettel Redlich), Merab Ninidze (Walter Redlich), Sidede Onyulo (Owuor), Matthias Habich (Süßkind), Lea Kurka (Regina, as 5-year-old), Karoline Eckertz (Teenage Regina), Gerd Heinz (Max), Anthony Bate (Mr. Brindley, Headmaster), Steven Price (British officer in Norfolk); Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Peter Herrmann; Zeitgeist Films; 2001-Germany-in German and Swahili with English subtitles)
“It didn’t move me.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

German writer-director Caroline Link (“Beyond Silence“) has adapted the German bestseller autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig. It’s a tale of an upper-middle-class Jewish family who flees the Nazi regime in 1938 for a remote and arid cattle farm in Kenya. The film won many Lola awards in Germany and an Oscar for best foreign film of 2002. It is seen through the eyes of Walter and Jettel Redlich’s daughter Regina (as a teenager), who paints the film with her childhood memories. The family abandons their once comfortable existence in Breslau, Germany where the father was a successful lawyer and the elegant mother led a privileged lifestyle, and now each must deal with the harsh realities of their new life in different ways. Walter receives little pay as the overseer for the British-owned farm, and suffers further indignities because he’s not cut out for farming. The attractive Jettel foolishly packs an evening gown and fancy china instead of a needed refrigerator to join her recovering from malaria hubby in Kenya. The spoiled-woman who is now poor and displaced in a land lacking culture, gets off to a slow start adjusting to such a different lifestyle. Only the 5-year-old finds pleasure in the simple life and quickly adjusts to her new surroundings. She has no problems picking up the language and making friends with the black children and learning the native customs. The noble cook Owuor, from the local Masai tribe, who has a generous smile and stands tall, immediately befriends Regina and treats her as one of his own children. While Jettel gets off to a bad start by treating him coldly as a servant and not with the proper respect he desires as bwana’s loyal protector. Owuor tells her he won’t carry water, only women do; and, that he won’t dig — he’s a cook and cooks don’t dig. He was a wonderful personality and made the film enchanting, but I felt a little uneasy thinking he was too much of a stock character too conveniently used to show how unbiased and pure hearted were the natives.

“Nowhere” moves in a genteel way intending to make no waves, it does not question the British colonizers exploiting the country or stir up the controversy over interracial romances it hints at when Regina matures and sleeps overnight in the hut of a native boy and his mother. “Nowhere” contents itself to just examine how people adjust to drastic changes in their lives, and in a leisurely and too slow pace it sets up its stories for all the critical and emotional episodes that follow. The lesson it teaches is that prejudice and intolerance must not be accepted. It’s another serious-minded Holocaust tale covering yet another angle in the ever-tragic historical story, and even though the personal story it tells is not weighty its mere Holocaust background material brings it automatic gravitas.

“Nowhere” plays out as a nostalgic memoir of times that should have been rotten but are remembered in a bitter-sweet way by a child who has fond memories of when she freely walked around native-style barefooted and bare-chested. What “Nowhere” lacked was someone other than a child pointing to the deeper agony love and exile caused her parents, as she was too young to know what was really going down. Instead it supplies many examples of challenges to accept another culture and to be kind to everyone, including exotic animals kept as pets. The cook learns some new German words and the Redlich’s realize that they must learn useful things from the cook to survive. They still might prefer a poem by Henrich Heine as a mark of civilization, but their problem is now to farm the land and feed their faces. But “Nowhere” deftly avoids getting lost in a schematic desert of sentimentality it almost seemed to be directly heading for, as the human interest story keeps pushing the family’s odyssey along in more mature paths. Though I felt the parents’ sensitivity to their native hosts never rose much more than being a condescending one, especially on Jettel’s part.

It seems so much like a combined National Geographic photo shoot of the beautiful natives of Kenya and the scenic landscape plus a soap opera-like story about marital trouble and the anxiety about living as an exile in a strange land during wartime. The story bored me, while the images kept me aroused.

The parents realize as the years pass that they were lucky to escape from Germany as the country of Goethe and Schiller turns barbaric, but they are troubled about what’s to happen to their relatives left behind and must also deal with their rapidly changing lives. Their love is tested when their sex life is on the skids, as the emasculated Walter comes to dread his exile experience and how much status he has lost since his manhood was impugned by not wearing his lawyer’s black-robe anymore. Their personal life becomes more complicated as they try to find ways to renew their love. They spent about a decade in Kenya before returning to Germany after the war to start over again in a country they no longer fully trust. Walter aims to help build democracy in the new Germany, where he accepts a position as a judge in Hesse.

In Kenya, the family no longer has the illusion they belong like before in Germany. They are outsiders in the British-controlled Kenya because they are not only German foreigners and white, but also Jewish. How the natives view them is never fully explored, except for the few times they are laughed at for their inadequacies. Though Regina is treated as an equal because they feel her sincerity. Mother is self-absorbed and has lingering racist views, but she grows and learns to become more independent and open-minded. The father has a quiet intelligence, but grows increasingly haunted by a country he can’t fit into. He is moving in opposite directions from his wife and daughter. By the film’s end, Jettel has made peace with the country and would prefer to remain (though we never really understand why). The same goes for Regina, who loved Africa upon first contact.

In the Redlich’s first farm in Rongai, they endure until they are ironically rounded up and interned as political prisoners during the outbreak of WW11 by the British colonizers because they are Germans. They are taken to Nairobi and the women are kept separately in the first-class Hotel Norfolk, where they dine and lounge in luxury. When Walter is fired from the farm because he’s a German, Jettel finds a new farm through her German-speaking British army officer lover in a probable trade for sexual favors. When the Jews are released after a few months of captivity as the British realize their foolish mistake, Walter joins the British army and Jettel runs the farm. Meanwhile Regina is sent to a British private boarding school and has to endure an anti-Semitic headmaster who makes the few Jews leave their seats in the school auditorium and stand at the side while the students recite the Lord’s Prayer. She returns to the farm during holidays as a vibrant and well-educated teenager, but still has no problem going native.

The sacrifice of a lamb for rain by the Kikuyu council of elders and the savannah all-night ritual ceremony of the Pokots in which Regina and Jettel attended, were two scenes that were especially colorful and authentic. They were real ceremonies filmed while they were taking place. Also, cinematographer Gernot Roll has these great shots of a locust invasion on a maise harvest (the most amazing I ever saw on film).

“Nowhere” was a visually stunning film. It was masterfully scored by Niki Reiser, as the original African musical rhythms were intensely felt. The story was flawlessly told, adequately acted and its tolerant message was certainly correct. But it didn’t move me. Somehow the sketchy dramatics never drew me emotionally into it. This film was all scenery and refined touches here and there, positive stuff that award-givers feel safe taking under their bosom, but not great cinema. Regina’s teenager view of life left out too many adult emotional things, as the story left things hanging without fully nailing down what it was trying to say (the affair with the British officer suddenly ends without a word and who knows what happened sexually with the lonely German bachelor pioneer Süsskind after much was made of his relationship with Jettel). If you are attempting to tell about a marriage on the rocks and make it a more mature and involving story, then it should have had some more urgency to the fireworks.

Nirgendwo in Afrika (2001)