On the surface, "Nowhere in Africa's" story of a German Jewish family that fled to Kenya in 1938 to escape the Holocaust sounds familiar and uplifting, a safe and predictable piece of inescapably heartwarming cinema. But "Nowhere in Africa" is not the film you may be expecting. It's better. A whole lot better.
The first hint that there is more going on here is the film's success, both critical and popular, thus far. It won five German Film Awards, including best feature, best director and best cinematography, and it was that country's top-grossing German-language film. "Nowhere in Africa" is not only one of the five films vying for the best foreign language Oscar, but it is the likely winner as well.
That's because director Caroline Link (who previously directed the Oscar-nominated "Beyond Silence") has taken a story that could have drowned in sentiment and turned it into an emotionally complex scenario laced with poignancy and conflict, urgency and compassion. This is an intelligent epic told without special pleading, a film able to cut deep enough to reveal a keen specificity of experience.
Not surprisingly, "Nowhere in Africa" does have a strong basis in fact. It's taken from Stefanie Zweig's autobiographical novel, a bestseller in Germany, about her life as the child of the couple who fled with her to Kenya before the war.
Though the daughter, Regina (played at different ages by Karoline Eckertz and Lea Kurka), remains a key character, Link, who also wrote the adapted screenplay, chose to focus on the troubled, complicated but always passionate relationship between husband and wife. It's a textured, realistic story that has the nerve to risk having not one but both partners lose our sympathy at different junctures of the film, just as they might do in life.
Helped by the nuanced yet powerful performance of Juliane Kohler as wife Jettel Redlich, "Nowhere in Africa" is striking in that one of its key focuses is the indomitability of women. Kohler, memorable as the military wife in "Aimee & Jaguar," shows Jettel in a variety of psychological states: angry, despairing, coping, fearlessly wrestling with compelling conflicts and difficulties with both her husband and her daughter.
"Nowhere in Africa's" other great asset was its decision to have director of photography Gernot Roll shoot the film in logistics-challenged Kenya, where it took place, rather than the cozier but more generic environs of South Africa. Link believes that specific, non-duplicable details are essential to creating a sense of place, and the way the bleak, terrifying and finally exhilarating vistas of Kenya come alive on screen just as they did for the Redlichs shows how right she is.
As if to underline the difference between the two countries, "Africa" opens by cutting back and forth between Kenya, where husband Walter Redlich (Georgian-born actor Merab Ninidze) is stricken with malaria, to Germany, where wife Jettel is making plans to join him with their 5-year-old daughter despite her family's insistence that "this will all be over in a year."
Once everyone does join Walter, the pivotal questions become how long they will all be in Kenya and under what psychological circumstances. "Nowhere in Africa" is particularly good at emphasizing the middle of nowhereness of its setting, at showing how difficult it was for this cultured German family to adjust to the unfamiliar status of tenant farmers, to understand a new language and an unimaginably different culture, to decide how much of their homeland they can and should hold onto.
Making things even more problematic is that husband and wife grapple with these problems in different ways and at radically different paces. Walter, once a prominent attorney, throws himself into the pioneer life as best he can, while Jettel initially resists it, filling her trunk from Germany with fine china and an evening gown instead of the vital small fridge she'd been asked to bring.
Caught in the middle are a pair of very different individuals who end up forming a touching and unusual bond. Young Regina acclimatizes easily to the new surroundings, as children often do. She's helped by the family's self-possessed cook, Owuor (beautifully played by Kenyan actor Sidede Onyulo), a figure of considerable dignity faced with the challenge of balancing his culture's demands with those of his employer.
Staying with this family for nearly a decade, "Nowhere in Africa" broadens and deepens as World War II arrives in Kenya and the experiences and even the attitudes of Jettel and Walter undergo radical shifts. Theirs is a relationship that causes real pain and demands real sacrifices, not once but several times, yet the deep connection between these people who seem to frustrate and love each other in equal measure is never in doubt.
At the heart of "Nowhere in Africa's" success is its ability to keep what happens to this family from seeming schematic or preordained. Again and again, we are surprised by the disconcerting feeling that, at any given moment, everything could ruinously fall apart for these strangers in the strangest of lands. Only human lives could be so complex, and only watching people grow and change could be as involving as this surprising film manages to be.
'Nowhere in Africa'
MPAA rating: unrated
Times guidelines: adult subject matter, a scene of fairly graphic sexuality
Juliane Kohler...Jettel Redlich
Merab Ninidze...Walter Redlich
Zeitgeist Films in association with Bavaria Film International presents an MTM Medien & Television Munchen production in co-production with Constantin Film, Bavaria Film and Media Cooperation One, released by Zeitgeist Films. Director Caroline Link. Producer Peter Herrmann. Screenplay Caroline Link, based on the novel by Stefanie Zweig. Cinematographer Gernot Roll. Editor Patricia Rommel. Costumes Barbara Grupp. Music Niki Reiser. Set design Susann Bieling, Uwe Szielasko. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes. In limited release.