Strangers in a strange land

Nowhere in Africa

Juliane KÖhler (as Jettel) and Merab Ninidze’s hand (as Walter’s hand) in Caroline Link’s film Nowhere in Africa.

Juliane KÖhler (as Jettel) and Merab Ninidze’s hand (as Walter’s hand) in Caroline Link’s film Nowhere in Africa.

Rated 5.0

My early fascination with the people, wildlife, landscapes, percussive rhythms and exotic allure of Africa was well-nurtured by film, books and music. TV reruns of Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies, the book Killers in Africa by Alexander Lake (self-described in the subtitle “the truth about animals lying in wait and hunters lying in print”) and pre-teen pen-pal exchanges with Ghana talking-drum recording artist Guy Warren all fed my enthrallment. In the liner notes of Warren’s 1958 Themes for African Drums, he talks of all men having an inner voice that guides them in their lives and the mysterious force of love. I had absolutely no clue at the time what ghosts Warren was chasing here, but both subjects are explored lucidly in Nowhere in Africa, the story of an affluent Jewish family that flees to Kenya in 1938 to escape persecution in budding Nazi Germany.

The above confession explains why director Caroline Link had me eating from her hand from the very first frames of her gorgeously photographed family drama. The panoramic sweep as an African lad rides a bicycle through his desolate homeland, which is crosscut with scenes of a snowy Germany, rendered me breathless. It is not only my own predisposition but also Link’s skill at painting intimate scenes onto an epic canvas that makes Nowhere in Africa such a resonant, satisfying experience.

Link’s film is based on Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel (both the film and book are originally titled Nirgendwo in Afrika). It is an adult love story gored and shaped by the stress and strains of forced emigration. The relationship of husband and wife is filtered at times through the eyes of their child, as complex and flawed yet compelling characters take turns falling in and out of favor with each other and in love with a country that saves their lives.

Walter (Merab Ninidze) preceded his wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler) and daughter Regina (played at different ages by Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz) to Kenya and sends for them. They arrive to a new life as poor tenant farmers.

Regina adapts to the transition. Her first meeting with their cook Owuor is a transcendental moment for both her and the film. Regina’s resiliency and imagination impress fellow farmer Susskind, who has taken Walter under his wing. “You have a great future here,” he says. “You are already talking like a Negro.”

Jettel’s acclimation is not as smooth. She thinks of herself as a privileged, temporary visitor rather than a desperate refugee. Unlike her husband and daughter, she treats the family cook Owuor more as a servant than an extended member of her family. “Learn German if you want to talk to me,” she tells him with an air of superiority that has much in common with the Nazi bigotry that drove her from her own country.

Six months later, the family is on a fast track to implosion. Walter has faced the reality of their situation. He thinks often of the loved ones that remain in Germany and tells Jettel that she should be happy just to be alive. Jettel is not so sure: “I feel like I am dead, and sometimes I wish I was.” Their rift widens while Regina, who is wise beyond her years but not irritatingly precocious like most Hollywood characters, maintains her emotional balance as the war escalates and all Jews are downgraded by the controlling British government from refugees to enemy aliens.

Nowhere in Africa reminded me a lot of Chocolat, the 1988 drama about a young French girl and her parents in Africa and the relationships the girl and her mother have with an intelligent, self-confident houseboy. Both films are about sexual politics, racism and relationships in which one person loves another more and thus becomes vulnerable.

Nowhere in Africa is also about the maturation of a marriage as well as about a child, guilt and second chances. The film is a staggering saga of escape, emasculation, natural disaster, indiscretion, forgiveness and rebuilding.

The acting is excellent, with Sidede Onyulo emanating potent, wordless expressions of disappointment, sadness, happiness, contentment, inner strength and understanding. Sex is shown briefly, not for sensationalism but to pound home the intensity of a moment in lives that teeter on the brink of failure. People change, and so did my attitude toward them.

“What I’ve learned here,” says Jettel, “are how important differences are.” It’s a lesson that is just as vital today as it was decades ago.