(Nirgendwo in Afrika)

Directed by Caroline Link. Africa. 2002.

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Nowhere in Africa, winner of the 2002 Foreign Film Oscar, tells the story of a Jewish family that emigrates from Breslau, Germany, to Kenya in East Africa, immediately prior to World War II. Brilliantly brought to life by director Caroline Link from an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig, the film has the look and feel of a sprawling Hollywood epic, but its natural and honest performances allow it to avoid the pitfalls of melodrama and cliché. 

The picture takes the form of luminous recollection, being narrated by the grown-up daughter Regina. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a lawyer by profession, arrives to work on a farm outside Nairobi in Kenya, many years before the uprising in the 50s against British colonialism. He is suffering from malaria and is being nursed back to health by his Masai cook and bodyguard, Owuor, depicted without condescension, and played with natural assurance by native Kenyan actor Sidede Onyulo. Required to leave his money and possessions in Germany, Redlich arrives without material trappings. When his wife Jettel (Julianne Köhler) and five-year old daughter Regina arrive from Germany, Jettel's expectations of continuing her middle class ways are quickly dashed. 

Her husband is incredulous when she purchases an expensive evening gown before leaving Germany instead of bringing a refrigerator for the family's use. Marital problems soon arise out of the stress of isolation, and it often seems that the two are simply mismatched, he being an idealist and she a creature of comfort. When Jettel foolishly expresses the belief that the natives will soon learn to speak German and treats Owuor with disdain, Redlich scolds her for treating the natives the way the Nazis are treating the Jews. 

The unfettered love and acceptance of children is personified by daughter Regina (portrayed as a teenager by Karoline Eckertz) who sees Africans as people, not as "Negroes" or members of a tribe. She forms a loving bond with Owuor and befriends the African children, absorbing the Masai and Pokot cultures and learning words in their native tongue. As the family slowly begins to adjust to their new environment, however, all Germans in Kenya are suddenly interned as enemy aliens, and they must leave the farm. 

This film touched me in several ways: as a reminder of what it is feels like to be an outsider, of the stresses of life in a new environment, of the pain of awaiting news of the fate of loved ones many miles away, and of the endurance of family. Its strength lies in the ability of its characters to grow as people, to connect with and love the land, and to be empowered by the growing harmony between cultures. Enhanced by the stark African landscape, the mix of classical music and African percussion, and the rhythm of Kenyan tribal dances and rituals, Nowhere in Africa is, to paraphrase Keats, a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Howard Schumann
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