Caroline Link’s wonderful, woefully obscure Best Foreign Film winner is an entertaining story of the perils of wartime emigration. It hits hard right now, with our own immigration crackdown underway. A Jewish family smartly escapes Nazi Germany at the 11th hour, only to find themselves imprisoned in detention camps by the British — who ironically consider them dangerous enemy aliens. The show is a glorious growing-up tale for a German tot transplanted to Kenya, and becomes an edgy romantic story when the mother repurposes her amorous needs to help rescue her family.
Nowhere in Africa
Kino Lorber / Zeitgeist
20019 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 141 min. / Nirgendwo in Afrika / Street Date February 27, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 34.95
Starring Merab Ninidze, Juliane Köhler, Lea Kurka, Karoline Eckertz, Sidede Onyulo, Matthias Habich, Herbert Knaup
Cinematography Gernot Roll
Production Designer Susann Bieling, Uwe Szielasko
Film Editor Patricia Rommel
Original Music Niki Reiser, Jochen Schmidt-Hambrock
Written by Caroline Link from the novel by Stefanie Zweig
Produced by Andreas Bareiss, Sven Ebeling, Bernd Eichinger, Peter Herrmann, Thilo Kleine,
Jürgen Tröster, Michael Weber
Directed by Caroline Link
This impressive mini-epic was a prized discovery on DVD fifteen years ago. Sony didn’t promote it in the theaters; it’s far more worthy a story of whites in Africa than 1985’s overblown Oscar bait feature Out of Africa. Nowhere in Africa can be classified with a large group of modern German films that tell exciting stories with historical significance, featuring unfamiliar actors far more interesting than what passes for star material in America. This is the year of ‘women everything,’ with woman directors as a group striving to make whatever showbiz advances they can. But filmmaking is just too dog-eat-dog to think of film talent, even women, forming a nurturing, benign professional sorority. If it were so, immensely talented writer-directors like Nowhere’s Caroline Link would be at the top of the business.
A complicated story beautifully told, Nowhere deserved to make international stars of its leads. The political and social confusion of Frankfurt Jews relocating to the scrub farms of Kenya creates wonderful cultural contrasts and emotional growth in a story that’s relentlessly authentic but definitely not a tragedy. It constantly rewards with its intelligence and rich feelings. And yet I doubt if one in a thousand U.S. filmgoers is even aware of it.
It’s 1938. A well-off family of German Jews is lucky enough to sidestep the Holocaust, but not without undergoing an ordeal. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) has emigrated to Kenya because as a lawyer he can see trouble coming for Jews in Germany. He succeeds in getting his wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler, Hitler’s secretary in Downfall) and daughter Regina (Lea Kurka, later Karoline Eckertz) out just in time. Adjusting to life on a rural Kenyan scrub farm is rough, a huge step down in status and comfort. The local customs are strange and their English bosses not always sympathetic. Jetta rebels, and the marriage founders. The Redliches are helped greatly by Kenyan cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo). Just as it becomes clear that their relatives in Germany are in life-threatening trouble, war breaks out. The English army in Kenya rounds them up as enemy aliens. Walter loses his job and disappears into a separate detention camp. Jettel works from inside her detention hotel to get them free and back on their feet again.
Nowhere in Africa treats us to an intelligent look at history and a personal biography that leaps over the limits of PC treatment of “the Jewish question.” The Redlich family is the exception to the Holocaust experience and not meant to represent some author’s views on politics, history or Jews. They’re wonderfully imperfect, but refreshingly resilient. The pampered Jettel must overcome her initial denial of the terrible events happening around her. But she has inner reserves; she retains her stubborn independence and makes edgy adult choices that may save or threaten her marriage.
The film’s charm is in showing is the basic harmony of people from different cultures and backgrounds. In the midst of world events based on cruelty and destruction, the expatriate German Jews, English landlords and Kenyan tribespeople live in relative peace. Outcasts unsure of their identity, the Redliches are in a perfect position to appreciate the strange customs of the rural Kenyans; all three refugees undergo a personal transformation.
Little Regina goes through a cute wild animal / adoring child episode. With one shot of a half-devoured carcass, it dispenses with the romanticism we remember from The Yearling. Regina shares a nice set of ‘growing up’ experiences with a tribal boy. When her body begins to develop, the boy doesn’t understand why she suddenly needs to wear a shirt. Regina later witnesses his manhood ritual, that will likely end their interaction as children. Regina also bonds with Owuor, who literally holds the family together when the English arrive to cart the father away. He’s not a ‘tame native’ who puts the whites above his own well being: when Jettel demands that he help her plant potatoes, Owuor calmly reminds her that he’s a cook and doesn’t dig in the ground.
Jettel responds to the humiliation of leaving Germany by using precious money on an expensive dress and packing her good china instead of a refrigerator. It takes her a while to realize that she’s no longer a fashionable hausfrau. In one terrific scene she finds that an elderly tribal woman has been left out in the elements, to starve and die. Jettel protests, but eventually has to accept that the woman isn’t a victim. Things just aren’t the same everywhere.
Walter puts up with abusive landlords, a wandering wife and Englishmen that regard him, a refugee from Nazi terror, as a potential Nazi enemy. He eventually fights alongside the English against his own countrymen. His search for an identity in this confusion is a fascinating problem, resolved when he commits to a better future: he determines to return home as a lawyer to help rebuild Germany.
Jettel goes through several romantic episodes that in an American movie might become sensational nonsense. She’s sufficiently embittered by her new life to withhold sex from her husband, yet can allow herself to be seduced by an English soldier when freedom and a farm to tend are offered as a reward. The maturity of this material is that it’s obvious that Jettel is not sacrificing herself, exactly. Ideas of quick affairs have been in the back of her mind for a long time, and her liaison with the Englishman is not treated as the ethical crime of the century. The incident becomes an open secret, as does her tender relationship with another Jewish homesteader, Susskind (Matthias Habich). There’s no socially acceptable explanation for her behavior, yet considering the circumstances, she’s simply exercising her right to make her own choices.
The patience and understanding in the Redlich marriage can be compared to the famous moment in the homesteading Western The Searchers where a preacher overlooks evidence of taboo-breaking infidelity. Survival on the prairie is too difficult to let a little thing like unfaithfulness upset lives. Jettel and Walter are shown to have a loving and playful relationship. They weather the storm of exile even when their domestic tranquility is impaired. Walter is a thoughtful man who can see that the problem of two little people (jealousy) ‘doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in his crazy world.’ Jettel has strayed partly out of desire but also to hold the family together. That Walter can put his pride aside makes him even more of a exemplary man.
Little Lea Kurka is adorable and open-minded in a way that makes her an excellent central character for most of the picture. Sidede Onyulo’s affable cook is a rare ‘local servant’ in a whites-in-Africa story with good reasons to become attached to his found family of strangers. Juliane Köhler is charming, sexy and a delight to watch as she becomes more aware of the things that really matter to her. Merab Ninidze (voiced by Herbert Knaup) is a man we first see as a helpless malaria patient, but shows more than one kind of inner strength. The clichéd ‘Green Acres’ convention in stories like this is for the city fugitives to learn country ways so well that they eventually choose to remain out in the wild. Walter’s desire to take his abandoned profession back to help heal his homeland overcomes such concerns.
The film looks great but rarely reaches for mere pictorial effects. There’s a lot of German, English and Kenyan spoken; we see how learning other languages enriches the experience for all. Like I said above, this is not a main-line Holocaust story but a special exception in which lives were turned upside-down, but not destroyed. It’s a movie that finds positive social values in the experience of exile. The Redliches return to Deutchland far better people than when they left it.
Personal tangent: Jettel and Walter’s story reminds me of an aged Jewish man my wife once encountered in an eye doctor’s waiting room, when she found he spoke fluid Spanish. He was a stockbreeder in Germany when he fled the Nazis. He started out for the U.S. on a ‘Ship of Fools’- like steamship, but most of his fellow refugees were sent back to Germany by the right-wing Congress. The man’s profession earned him entry into the Dominican Republic, where some rancher had need of his skills. That’s how his family survived the war. He later emigrated to the U.S., in more liberal times. He certainly had a remarkable story to tell, as another rare positive outcome in a time of political horror. Nowhere in Africa seems painfully comparable to the immigration policies now being enforced.
The Kino Lorber / Zeitgeist Blu-ray of Nowhere in Africa is a big boost over Sony’s good-looking 2003 DVD. Ms. Link’s voyage of discovery, wartime irony and personal female liberation plays even better in the clarity of HD, widescreen. The Africa we see are places where people actually seem to be living — a rugged but clean village, run-down sharecropper’s farm houses, beautiful meadows and fields, and a ‘detention’ building for German aliens, that’s actually a posh country hotel.
The old DVD was a two disc set. This new Blu-ray carries over most of its original, interesting extras. Deleted scenes are accompanied by a welcome featurette, cast interviews, trailers, photo montages etc. Other galleries have storyboard comparisons and excerpts from the film’s handsome score.
I’m very happy to have Nowhere in Africa back in such a fine encoding. If you know my taste and are willing to give a film you’ve never heard of a blind try, this should be a fairly safe bet. It gets Savant’s highest marks.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Nowhere in Africa
Supplements: deleted scenes, making of featurette and cast interviews, storyboards, score selections, photo montage, trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 15, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson