Nirgendwo in Afrika
starring Juliane Köhler, Regine Zimmermann, Merab Ninidze, Matthias Habich
screenplay by Caroline Link, based on the novel by Stefanie Zweig
directed by Caroline Link
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover One wants very badly to condescend to a film like Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika). Like a multitude of other middlebrow efforts, it has large ambitions it can't fulfill, and it strains to say big things about a subject it hasn't really thought through. But somehow, one can't write the whole thing off. The subject matter is so suggestive on its own that it allows you to go on your own mental journey, riding over director Caroline Link's visual and analytical deficiencies to find the material's implications. True, that's not as good as having a real director give you ideas that send you further, but it is enough to keep you watching with no real pain.
Based on an autobiographical bestseller by Stefanie Zweig, Nowhere in Africa tells the story of a Jewish family that flees Nazi Germany for the somewhat more forgiving landscape of Kenya. The journey is, to put it mildly, a jarring experience: Father Walter Redlich, a lawyer back home, must content himself with a position as a farm caretaker, though that's a minor problem compared to the culture shock that the move engenders. Mother Jettel--who impractically made sure to pack the family china--is completely at sea in the grasslands; surrounded by people with strange customs who don't speak her language, she has difficulty coping. Their daughter Regina thrives, however, making close friends with cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) and insinuating herself into the culture of the native Kenyans--leading to heartache when the war ends and Walter wants to return home.
There's cross-cultural madness all over this property, and in the postcolonial hands of, say, the Claire Denis of Chocolat, we'd have ourselves a whiz-bang picture. Unfortunately, the hands in question belong to Caroline Link, who doesn't seem to know what she's got. Instead of riffing on the fertile confusion between German Jews, English colonialists, and the African tribesmen who must deal with them both, Link digs in with a rather conventional narrative line and barrels through until it's done. Never mind that the story broaches serious issues of European arrogance and the fallout on Africans, or the possibility of cultural exchange between Regina and her friends: the film is locked on the core family and never strays outside long enough to make any finds. Thus the character of Owuor is such an adjunct and pushover that he flirts with becoming an Uncle Remus caricature, and the bulk of Regina's interactions with tribespeople take place safely off-camera. This lack of curiosity is inexcusable, both for its political implications and for the film's claim to artistic seriousness.
But despite Link's foursquare determination to cling to a classic story, the raw material is so compelling that one can forgive it a few transgressions. There are enough hints of suggestive material that the attentive audience member can do their own homework; after a while, you start wondering what would happen if Regina decided to go native, or what it takes for a bourgeois homebody like Jettel to learn to love the Kenyan land, or why Owuor must finally abandon the family to whom he's been such a sheepdog. And as you see the stuff to which boring old Caroline Link is blind, you wind up shooting your own movie in your head and start to enjoy yourself. In fact, the speeding bullet of the narrative facilitates this, giving us tantalizing fragments that perversely serve to defeat its own forward motion and feed our daydreams as to what could have gone down outside the Redlich household. One shouldn't--as the foolhardy Academy recently did--mistake Nowhere in Africa for a real movie. It's a limited film without a single interesting shot, but it's also one with great fringe benefits should you find yourself watching it. Originally published: March 28, 2003.