Nowhere in Africa

April, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Caroline Link

Starring:Juliane Köhler, Merab Ninidze

Nowhere In Africa

The process by which films get nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film have always been a mystery to me; politics and national sensibilities often seem to be as important as the artistry involved. Why do the winners in this category rarely match the awards given in the best-known European competitions like Cannes and Berlin? What lies behind the choice of Nowhere, the German movie that won the Oscar just a few weeks ago? Is it really the best the non-English world had to offer in 2002? It's certainly politically correct, but is it really that good?

Writer/director Caroline Link adapted her screenplay from a novel by Stephanie Zweig, tracing the fortunes of a German/Jewish family who migrate to Africa in the late 1930's to escape Hitler's increasingly anti-Semitic Germany. Husband, father, (and lawyer) Walter Redlich, (Merab Ninidze) leaves the fatherland first; we meet him flat on his back coping with malaria in the ranch house of a Kenyan farm he's been hired to manage, despite his lack of occupational training to do so. His slow recovery is inter-cut with winter scenes in Germany where his comfortably upper-class wife and wary, pre-school daughter are surrounded by a loving extended family and friends. When Walter sends for his wife Jettel, (Juliane Kohler) and young Regina (Lea Kurka) in                 mid-1938, he has a more accurate sense of impending doom for the Jews of Germany than his wife; their little family will remain where it is for the simplest of reasons; it has no other option.

The Redlich's settle in, with varying degrees of success and acclimation, to their new surroundings; Walter's resignation to their new isolated impoverishment kindles his wife's smoldering resentment, but little Regina quickly acclimates to her exotic surroundings thanks to the Owuor, the family cook, (played with sly elegance by Sedede Onyulo). War begins, Walter's interred, Jettel has a brief fling in Nairobi while waiting for his release; her dalliance produces freedom for Walter and a new farm to manage…Owuor somehow manages to rejoin them as Regina goes off to school and Jettel grows to appreciate Africa even as her husband secretly plans to return home after the war….

And so it goes; for a couple of hours, the audience enjoys gorgeous shots of the Kenyan hill country below Hemmingway's favorite mountain, punctuated with scenes of little Regina's first term at boarding school, Mom's flirtations with a neighboring farmer, Dad's weary persistence as a sergeant in the British military, all presented with a dogged insistence that the sum of these disparate parts adds up to a more substantial whole. Kohler plays Jettel with a pitch-perfect blend of snobbish self-assurance and put-upon weariness, and it's hard not to respond to Lea Kurka's blonde good looks as little Regina. But the larger implications of what's occurring in the world behind this trio of lives in the foreground ultimately produces little in the way of insight or character development; the war ends, Jettel gets pregnant and they all go back home so Walter can become a judge in the "new" Germany. He's rather patiently tolerated this African interlude, Jettel has grown to love a place she initially abhorred, and the now teen-aged Regina will once again have to make a life for herself in surroundings she can no longer even remember…

Nowhere suffers from two problems, one dramatic and the other thematic; in trying to do justice to the lives of all three members of the Redlich family, the movie winds up suffering from an overly diffuse point of view; we're initially led into their lives by little Regina's narration, but we're soon focused on her mother's reluctant adjustment to her loss of privilege, then to Dad's resulting frustrations, then back to Regina and her growing friendship with Owuor--and so it goes, a rondo-lay which drains dramatic possibilities from the story line as it tries, often elliptically, to cover too many bases. 

Even more telling however, is the Eurocentric tone the movie takes towards the native Africans among whom this story is set; the action here is so focused on its European characters it unconsciously generates an underlying subtext about black Africans; they do not strive for anything, therefore they do not accomplish anything worthy of more than the most cursory observation. Some years ago, Meryl Streep's Out Of Africa conveyed a sense of how colonialism impacted the colonizers; here, the Redlich's transitory journey isn't accompanied by the slightest hint that they recognize their suffering is matched and often exceed by the conditions in which their black neighbors live. Sedede Onyulo's Owuor, easily the most appealing character in the film, serves his rather insensitive white employers with a quiet and dignified efficiency and his contributions to their 9-year sojourn merit a more fitting denouement than his nocturnal departure preceded by a Disneyish admonition to Regina to take care of her father since she's the wise one in the family. Even the film's final scene, (in which a resigned Jettel accepts a banana from a poor woman selling fruit to the passengers of a departing train) conveys an unintended irony. Jettel is returning to the comfortable upper-middle class existence she enjoyed before the war, yet her response to the permanently impoverished African woman's generosity is a rueful assertion that Jettel's "as poor as a little monkey". The poverty here is one of spirit; at the film's end, having observed the Redlich's failure to grow more self-aware from their wartime experiences, the audience can be excused for finding little sympathy for them either; it would require more effort than these characters deserve. 

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