All things African
Director Link’s Kenya-relocated Jewish family’s tale avoids melodrama
The rap on Oscar-winners for Best Foreign Film is that they tend to be serious-minded in a somewhat superficial way. This year’s winner, the German film Nowhere in Africa, might be pegged as the latest case in point. But a closer look suggests there is more to this quietly sprawling historical drama than its glossy surfaces and seemingly pat subjects might initially indicate.
There’s a kind of epic feel to this two-hour-plus drama, but there’s also plenty of intimate drama implicit in its basic situation—a small, young family of migrant German Jews struggling for survival in Africa before, during, and after World War II. The displaced Redliches—lawyer Walter (Merab Ninidze), his well-to-do wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler) and their daughter Regina (Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckerts, at different ages)—are buffeted about by the large historical forces of war and cultural dislocation.
While writer-director Caroline Link evokes the public dramas in bits and pieces, she focuses more often on the more private ones—the severe strains on the couple’s marriage and Regina’s struggle to sort out heritage and identity for herself. The rather obvious melodrama in all this is countered by Link’s pointedly fragmentary approach to events and character alike—Nowhere in Africa has elements of love story, coming-of-age tale, refugee drama, extra-marital melodrama, and religious and cultural quest percolating through it at various times, and Link’s somewhat oblique approach leaves hints of mystery and enigma in each of them.
The triangular relationship between Walter, Jettel and fellow expatriate Susskind (Matthias Habich) is the foremost aspect of the marital drama, but perhaps the most significant relationship of all is the one that gradually emerges between Regina and Owoub (Sidede Onyulo), the stoically genial Kenyan who serves variously as cook, butler, guide, house-man, and mentor to the Redlichs. Regina’s absorption in African culture becomes an increasingly important part of the film’s overall perspective, and Owoub in some ways sets a standard by which all of the European characters measure themselves.
Gernot Roll’s lyrical color cinematography helps make the landscape of Kenya into a kind of character in the film as well, and Link’s quirkily fragmented montages (with fade-outs instead of direct cuts) help set up a richly poetic sense of time and change.