Winning the Oscar for the best foreign language film in March will no doubt ensure thorough distribution and success for Nowhere in Africa. The last German director to have won this coveted prize was Volker Schlöndorff for The Tin Drum, and that was 24 years ago. Nowhere in Africa was Germany’s highest grossing film in 2002 and has won numerous prizes. The German press love it, and most of the American reviews have followed suit. Variety encapsulated the essence of the film into two words: ‘effortlessly entertaining’. This is precisely right. For me ‘effortlessly entertaining’ reads ‘disappointingly predictable’ – whereas for those who focus on the gross income of movies, it probably reads ‘great investment’.
The plot of the film adds a different slant to the similar setting of Out of Africa (1985). There is a farm. There is a friendly local inhabitant who is on the side of the memsahib and the bwana. There is fine China. There are crystal glasses. The only difference is that the Redlich family left Germany in 1938 to flee the Jewish persecution by the Nazi regime. This element gives plenty of opportunity for historical references to what is simultaneously going on in Germany, both in the wider political context and the fate of individual relatives.
Comparisons are inevitably made in the film between racism in Africa and anti-Semitism in Germany. Different aspects of life in Kenya are brought out by each family member. The mother of the family, Jettel (Juliane Köhler), at first treats the Kenyan workers like second-class citizens, letting all her anger at having to leave family and country out on them. Her husband Walter, on the other hand, learns Swahili and recognises that his stay in Kenya is a blessing and will save the family from certain death. But it’s their daughter Regina (Lea Kurka) who adapts best. She learns Swahili and makes friends with Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), the family cook, and it is mainly through her eyes that we see many of the local customs.
Much of the camerawork in the film deliberately attempts to portray the story from a child’s eye view. When Jettel reads in a letter that her mother has died, the camera is placed on the roof of the house, using Regina’s perspective. When war is declared on Germany, the German population of Kenya is forcibly interned. During this time Jettel has a minor flirtation with an English officer, and their stolen kiss is mostly filmed through a gauze curtain that blows apart once so that the Regina can glimpse what is going on.
This results in a sense of detachment from the main story, and several plot developments which don’t quite hang together. At some later point Walter (Merab Ninidze) asks Jettel whether she met someone else in Nairobi. This question took me by surprise, because although she seems dissatisfied with the marriage, there is no indication at all that she is still thinking about the other man – presumably because Regina, with her child’s eyes, has not noticed, and so neither can we.
In the book that this film is based on, written by Stefanie Zweig, the daughter is the central character, but in Caroline Link’s screenplay, her mother Jettel plays an equally prominent role in the story. In an interview with the German magazine Titel, Zweig says that she embroidered the character partly because she didn’t want to have a child as the central figure. She has previously directed other successful children’s films and understandably doesn’t want to get pigeonholed. This also means, however, that Nowhere in Africa doesn’t have a truly central character. We neither really feel for the child nor the mother, although both characters have interesting points of view.
Perhaps the most important character in the film is Africa itself. In the Titel interview Zweig admits that part of the attraction of making the film was to travel to Africa and to get to know it. She was aware that she didn’t want to shoot traditionally scenic shots of the country, however. Authenticity and remaining true to both the characters and the action were more important to her than breathtaking visuals. The most memorable images of this film are of domestic life in Africa: a crippled beggar in a train station, a toothless fruit-seller, a farm located in the wilderness, a long jeep ride on dusty tracks, a black boy cycling madly on dirt roads. The film might not succeed very well in making a film about the trials and tribulations of a Jewish refugee family in Kenya – but if you love Africa and are looking to be effortlessly entertained, then Nowhere in Africa serves its purpose.