Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika), which won an Oscar as the best foreign-language film of 2002, portrays the actual experiences of a Jewish family that fled Germany in 1938, after Kristallnacht, and settled in Kenya. It’s an attractive accomplishment. Its contribution to cinema touching on the Holocaust is, however, negligible.
Kristallnacht was an officially sanctioned event of street crime throughout Germany; on the night of November 9, rampaging mobs freely assaulted Jews, their homes and businesses, leaving streets littered with broken glass. Nowhere in Africa refers to the too few Jews who, fearing for their safety, drastically relocated. A German film by Caroline Link, it derives from an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig (a pen-name, one hopes). Walter Redlich is a lawyer; he, his wife, Jettel, and their five-year-old daughter uproot themselves, accepting the arrangements made on their behalf by a family friend already in Kenya. Regina, the child, is based on Zweig.
The opening movement promises a superior film. The African landscapes, gorgeously photographed by Gernot Roll, are suspended between daunting strangeness and exotic dreaminess. The long shots, the panoramic views of these vistas, imply memory. Voiceover—the adult Regina—begins, “I could not really remember Germany.” Regina now flashes back to Germany, remembering her and her mother playing in the snow, allowing, with tantalizing ambiguity, for one of three possibilities: that Regina recalled more than she is now admitting; that she has recalled things better since; that she is, at least partially, making things up. Back to Rongai, Kenya. At a basic level of “setting the scene,” Link knows what she is doing.
The film opens with the arrival in Rongai of Jettel and Regina, Walter having preceded them in order to secure their rented cabin and begin the work as a tenant farmer for which he is ill-suited. (He doesn’t even know how to dig and construct a well.) It’s plain that Walter is miserable in this new life of his, but because he is less miserable than Jettel he is able to “act off” her discontent in order to shore up his resolve to acclimate and adjust. Jettel, who longs to return home to family, will not even permit her good, patterned china to be unpacked. She is sure that all danger to Jews will quickly pass in Germany. Meanwhile, we take in the fuller view of her mind afforded by the fact that she did pack up this china and bring it along with her. Walter has no delusions about returning home anytime soon and worries about the fate of his father, whom he was unable to persuade to leave Germany and join them. The Redliches will not return until a few years after the war, at which point the Holocaust has occurred and both Walter and Jettel have lost their loved ones in Germany. Through connections, the Redliches have followed some of the turmoil that happened in Germany in their absence—a stark contrast to the refugees in the documentary Shanghai Ghetto (Dana Janklowicz-Mann, Amir Mann, 2002), who didn’t learn of the Holocaust until the end of the war.
Whites subject the Redliches, including Regina, to some of the anti-Semitism that they would have experienced at home. They are considered unwelcome visitors. Kenyan natives embrace and befriend them, except Jettel when she makes demands for favors and services to which her bourgeois experience, she feels, entitles her but runs counter to the hard work routinely performed by the Kenyan women. (For instance, she demands that a black male servant carry buckets of water for her from the community hole.) Jettel is so abrupt and insensitive to the natives that her spouse chides her, saying that she acts toward these black Kenyans in the manner of “people you should not want to be compared to.” He is referring to the way Aryans treat Jews in Germany. For her part, little Regina is blissfully and warmheartedly open to the natives and her own African experience.
In the best instance of dialogue in the film, Regina upon entering a schoolroom is meanly greeted by the teacher, who says, “So you’re the little Jewish girl.” “Yes,” the child replies, “I’m Jewish,” in effect retaliating against the anti-Semite’s presumption with a subtle and sharp correction. The moment doesn’t seem rhetorical. Regina is years older than when she arrived in Kenya, and from the start she is precocious. The moment belongs to her, and it does seem that she might actually have responded with this Jane Eyre-ish wit.
Superb acting comes from Juliane Köhler, who plays Jettel, whose attitudes about Kenya and black Africans hearteningly change throughout the process of her adjustment to the reality of her situation. But, for me at least, the film most falters with its presentation of her character. Marital quarrels and infidelity—Jettel takes up with the family friend who arranged for their coming to Kenya—plunge the action into dismal soap opera. It scarcely matters that the film may be hewing to a set of factual occurrences; all this ultra-dramatic nonsense cheapens the material and shifts the focus away from the European developments for which the Redliches’ African relocation should be a constant and haunting reminder.
I appreciate the purpose of this vulgar marital melodrama. We are being reminded that, in addition to dealing with the Holocaust, the Redliches are subject to all the other unpleasant stuff in life with which other bourgeois must contend. Jews are people after all. Link may find this a humane take on things, but others would be justified in labeling her perspective condescending in the extreme. The film stresses the likelihood that the couple’s marital difficulties are in part pressured by their current circumstance, which in turn derives from the Jewish (and other) tragedies in Europe. One can draw this connection intelligently, but, in the meantime, one must wade through the melodrama. The Redliches’ marital woes constitute a ridiculous, even at times an offensive aspect of the film. And how it does go on. When the couple finally reconciles, one is apt to wish to have been spared the whole ordeal of their “Bickering Bickersons” routine.
Gratuitous sex and gratuitous violence have no place in serious cinema. However, there’s also such a thing as too little sex when sex isn’t gratuitous. When official word comes that the war is over, the Redliches make love; but Link gives the celebratory sex short (and too fancily artistic) shrift. It would have been much more powerful had she shown the sexual act between these reconciled partners from start to finish. Doing this would not have made voyeurs of us (if that was Link’s reservation) but would have given us time for the momentousness to sink in. In part, Link’s dashing through this all-important sexual event is strategic, to provide emphasis for a subsequent instance of the Redliches’ lovemaking that produces the fetus with which they return to Germany. That moves “the story” along, to be sure, but the sex celebrating the end of war is of far more thematic relevance and importance. Again, the second instance of sex is somewhat artily drawn.
The Redliches return to Germany only because Walter, as an attorney, wants to participate in the construction of a new system of justice in West Germany. By this point, Jettel considers Kenya her home and is, additionally, incensed that Walter has made arrangements for their return without consulting her. (Some choice: token consultation or no consultation.) Neverthetheless, we presume that the Redliches will remain happy with one another.
Those who are, perhaps, most likely to embrace Link’s film are filmgoers who enjoy visual storytelling allied with grand and beautiful visual backdrops. Nowhere in Africa reminds me of later David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago), and it’s likely that those who like Lean’s “epics” will also like Link’s film. I care for neither.
Zweig has voiced her own reservations, especially on the point of Link’s inability to understand the kind of Jewish family to which she belonged. Let me quote the author: “We were not Orthodox, but we have always been traditional Jews, and that was what . . . Link didn’t understand, and I was trying to explain it to her but she didn’t know what I was talking about. I have always been somebody who honors my parents by keeping the holidays, for example.” In other ways, too, Link may have found the project upon which she embarked beyond her grasp.
In addition to the Oscar, Nowhere in Africa won the German Film Award as best film and the FIPRESCI Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, whose citation reads as follows: “For its unusual narrative and historical perspectives on the international reverberations of World War II.”
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