Dir. Caroline Link. Germany. 2001. 134mins.
A sprawling epic about a Jewish family sheltering in Africa just before World War Two, Nowhere In Africa is a natural crowd pleaser that has already stormed to success in Germany. Adapted from Stefanie Zweig's best-selling autobiography, the film, which is now playing on 224 screens, has taken $7.3m since it opened at the start of the year. It also picked up five Lolas, including best film, director and cinematography, at the German Film Awards last month. Director Caroline Link has crafted a film which has the potential to do well abroad- if it can overcome the antipathy of some territories towards mainstream German cinema. Zeitgeist Films has already secured US theatrical distribution. The narrative follows Jewish family Walter and Jettel Redlich and their little daughter Regina, who flee Germany in 1938 while their relatives believe Hitler to be but a temporary nuisance. They settle in Kenya, where Walter, a former lawyer, becomes a farm caretaker. The switch in social standing is just one of the tremendous obstacles the upper middle-class city people have to overcome in order to adapt to a lifestyle, landscape and culture they have never encountered before.
To begin with, Walter (Ninidze) insists that the family ignore all hardship because anything is better than the Germany they left behind. Meanwhile Jettel (Kohler) feels lost in a continent that offers none of the usual civility or comfort of her former life. Only Regina easily fits in, befriending the house cook Owuor and the children of the neighbouring village. But as time goes by, so the roles are reversed: when, nine years later, Walter wants to return to Germany and become a magistrate, he finds Jettel is reticent to support him.
The film works mainly because Link carefully avoids trying to make an American epic genre. Instead, she keeps a deft balance between the large canvass she has to handle, the intensity of the personal stories (Jettel is the most interesting of the characters), the process of learning to live with nature (which climaxes in a fierce battle against a swarm of locusts descending on the farm) and the dramatic events that are shaking the world outside.
The African environment may offer plenty of local colour, but thankfully Link keeps it in rein, refusing to allow her feature to become a travelogue. Nor does she miss such small touches as Jettel's longing nostalgia for home which makes even Hitler's voice on the radio sound good. Then there is the irony of Jewish refugees in Africa being considered dangerous aliens because of their German passports.
Kohler is commendable as Jettel, never courting the audience's sympathy as she turns from a society flower to a self-assertive woman. Georgian actor Ninidze offers a soulful version of Walter and is faultlessly dubbed into both German and English while the transition from little Regina (Lea Kurka) to the older one (Karoline Eckertz) is seamless.
Complaints are minor: Niki Reiser's gushing score sometime threatens to overpower, pouring on to the screen at the slightest excuse. Some audiences may find fault with the relationship between the whites and blacks in Africa, with no hint of the impending revolt against colonialism. Others might object to the conclusion that Africa can only be a shelter for the likes of Redlich, while Germany is really home. History is more complex than that.
Prod co: MTM Medien & Television Munich
Ger dist: Constantin
Int'l sales: Bavaria Film Int'l
Exec prod: Andreas Bareiss
Prod: Peter Herrmann
Cinematography: Gernot Roll
Ed: Patricia Rommel
Music: Niki Reiser
Cast: Juliane Kohler, Merab Ninidze, Matthias Habich, Sidede Onyulo, Lea Kurka, Karoline Eckertz