Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika) is a German movie set and filmed mostly in Africa, but it has the grand feel of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic. Spanning a decade, it follows the adventures of a family in the exotic wilds of Kenya, and is set against the backdrop of the Second World War and the persecution of Jews under the Nazi regime.Like Roman Polanski’s recent The Pianist, Nowhere in Africa is also based on a memoir about the impact of the Holocaust on a Jewish family. But it tells a very different story, since the Redlich family escaped Germany in early 1938 before the worst atrocities. They arrive in Kenya, where fellow expatriate Süßkind (Matthias Habich) has found Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) work managing a farm.
In Breslau, Walter was an up-and-coming city lawyer. While he resigns himself to life as a poor refugee farmer, his wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler from Aimee and Jaguar) feels their loss in status keenly. Their young daughter Regina (Karoline Eckertz, then Lea Kurka) quickly adapts after befriending the Kenyan cook, Owour (a charming Sidele Onyulo).
The film is based on Stefanie “Regina” Zweig’s autobiographical novel of the same name. Rather than retain the child’s point-of-view and film it as a coming-of-age story, director-adaptor Caroline Link (Beyond Silence) was more interested in how Walter and Jettel coped, and the strain that events placed on their marriage. The keystone becomes Africa’s effect on Jettel, rather than Regina.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the Redlichs sat out the War quietly on a farm. The family battle poverty, internment, extra-marital affairs, even a plague of locusts. Link sweeps us through these events, by necessity painting with broad brushstrokes. But the actors fill in the rest of the details for us. Ninidze never plays Walter for a sap, and the gradual transformation of Juliane Köhler is impressive for its acuity and power.
The camera is unnecessarily restless, as if Link worried we’d be bored if it wasn’t constantly moving. Sudden, dizzying close-ups - signalling some oncoming catastrophe that never arrives - are also a mistake. But amidst the enjoyable on-screen spectacle, Link manages to convey an intimate family story with an important theme about the value of difference.There are additional pleasures in Gernot Roll’s wide screen photography, and Niki Reiser’s score, which weaves African themes into the more traditional, lush music associated with film epics. Nowhere in Africa received the award for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars.