Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika) Reviews
2002 Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Film (Germany)
Shortly before World War II jumps into full swing, a Jewish family emigrates to Kenya to start up a farm and a hopeful new life. Considering where they are coming from and where they are heading to, the transition does prove difficult to each family member in its own way. But the father, the mother, and their young daughter each find a way to cope in their new home with the help of an honorary native godfather they meet along the way. . . The film does take an unorthodox look at survival during World War II, focusing more on the scenario of those who had to make due abandoning everything they knew and figuring it out in a place that might as well have been on another planet. . . Nowhere in Africa comes across as genuine by spinning something different with an all too familiar time-place-period used in story-telling, and painting it in front of a gorgeous African backdrop. The story will come across as a bit scattered and somewhat disheveled at times, but audiences will be attracted to the primary relationships being focused on in the mother versus the father and the daughter who is seemingly adopted by the kindly native godfather. Germany overall did a fine job putting this piece together, though the film doesn't hit the same levels of so many others that have packed such a punch in dealing with World War II and those who survived it.
The performances by all the main actors are absolutely excellent, especially by Merab Ninidze and Sidede Onyulo. The characters ring true, and the situations are all believable. Even the bratty behavior by Jettel, who misses the privileges of her life in Germany, seems logical when one remembers that she doesn't have the benefit of concentration camp photographs that have been handed down to us by history.
Ironically and interestingly, what is frustrating about Nowhere in Africa is also one of its greatest strengths: once again, here is a film about Africa with white protagonists, so the racism inherent in never telling African stories from an African perspective continues. Yet the point behind Nowhere in Africa is that even victims of racism, in this case the Jewish family, can exhibit racist tendencies. It's a remarkable concept because unlike other films about Nazism it doesn't reduce the world into clearly defined categories of good and evil.
The ending is unsatisfying, but the film opened a Pandora's Box with the complexity of its theme, and any ending that I can think of would ultimately be as reductive as the one the filmmakers chose.
Overall, Nowhere in Africa is a very good, unique film if only for the cinematography, but the complexity of its theme and the sharpness of its characters make it quite extraordinary.
It's worth noting that the family in Today's Film lost everyone. Parents. Siblings. Everyone. They lost all their money, because by the time they saw what was happening, the rules were such that they could scarcely take anything. They ended up poor and in a country they couldn't understand, because countries with their way of life wouldn't take them in. Despite the claim that the Nazis were making right around the time that Our Story begins, they weren't interested in sending the Jews to Africa. After all, these characters go to Kenya, which was a British colony at the time. It took the efforts of the Jewish community in Nairobi to get even the wife and daughter out of Germany, and [i]Kristallnacht[/i] took place the day after they arrived. Millions of others did not have the chance that this family had, and those millions died because of it. And, of course, the twentieth century wasn't exactly great shakes for native Africans, either.
Regina Redlich (Lea Kurka at first, then Karoline Eckertz) was born a German Jew. She doesn't remember much about Germany, except that they had seasons there, and her grandfather (Gerd Heinz) was allergic to nuts. One day, when she was very young indeed, her father, Walter (Merab Ninidze) went to Kenya, and six months later, she and her mother followed. He has been a lawyer in Germany, but there was no place for German-speaking lawyers in Kenya, and now, he works on a farm as an overseer. He is cared for by Owuor (Sindede Onyulo). When Regina's mother, Jettel (Juliane Köhler), comes with Regina, she is completely unprepared for it. She doesn't seem to realize the severity of what's happening back in Germany. She doesn't want Regina associating too much with black people. And when England declares war on Germany, she sees it more as an inconvenience to herself than anything else. What's more, Walter is growing into a more complicated person, and Jettel doesn't know what to do about it.
Regina adapted to her situation better than her parents; adapting is what children do. Besides, Owuor is good to her. He turns out to have three wives and six children elsewhere, but he still seems to put more time and effort toward making Regina happy than her parents do. Jettel is worried that Regina is running wild, but it doesn't seem to be because she's at all worried about Regina's future. She just doesn't want to have that kind of daughter. Walter loves his daughter very much, but he's so wrapped up in finding himself and figuring out what he and his wife have in common, he can't quite give Regina what she needs. He can't even necessarily quite see it. And when Regina does go to school, she is isolated from the rest of the student body, because she is German and because she is Jewish. The headmaster (Anthony Bate) even demands to know why she spends so much of her time studying, as if there's something wrong with that.
Really, Jettel is extremely childish when she first comes to Kenya. Walter sends her explicit instructions about what it is important to bring, and she ignores them. He warns her about what life is going to be like for them, and she ignores him completely. When she gets a message from her mother (Hildegard Schmahl) and sister (Regine Zimmermann) saying that they are on their way to Poland, she insists to Walter that it is because they have found a way to escape. She essentially expects them to show up on her doorstep any minute now. Walter tries to tell her the truth, and he points out that he does not know where his father and sister (Maritta Horwarth) even is, that he has no way of knowing what has happened to them. She's lucky to know that her mother and sister are dead, because that's what that message means. Everything in the world is an inconvenience to her, and that's hard for the people around her. It's hardest for her husband and daughter, but it isn't easy for people like Owuor, either.
At that, as I said, the Redlichs are lucky. Poor and working a life to which they are unaccustomed in Africa is better than the fate the rest of their family suffered in Germany and Poland. And all three of them learn something. Walter finds out who he is in himself and what's important to him. Jettel learns what true tolerance is and even eventually grows up a little. And Regina survives to find her place in the world, whether that place is in Germany, Kenya, England, or anywhere else. She has learned how to deal with all kinds of people, a skill which is not a bad one in the years to come. Africa is a beautiful continent, and Regina is perhaps uniquely suited to help it with its problems in the coming years. Of course, she wasn't real, and there probably weren't enough real people like her--people who learned the value of differences and that single people can, if they work hard enough, make things better. Also what it is like to yourself be the outsider, an important thing to learn for everyone.
Yet for what it's worth, director Caroline Link has uplifted German cinema to international fame with the beauty of this film, allegedly based on an autobiographical novel. That alone gives the movie the four stars it deserves.