Nowhere in Africa (***)

Posted on June 2nd, 2003 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

******************** THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ********************

I am not particularly geeked out by art-house flicks, nor do I have any particular fondness for foreign-language films. Nowhere in Africa is both, and I still loved it. The film is not a stereotypical art-house flick, in that it is not avant-garde, film noir, experimental, hyper-sexual, nor stupid. What it is, is a very real story about real people trying to live their lives during extraordinary circumstances.

The film is set around the time of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. The story follows a married couple and their daughter, who are Jewish, as they try to adapt and survive in a changing world. When the story begins the mother, Jettel, and daughter, Regina, are living the last few precious days of their privileged lives in Germany. The husband, Walter, is off in Kenya (where there is a nascent Jewish community) attempting to create a livelihood and homestead for his family, and bring them out of Germany to escape what he senses is the upcoming devastation of the lives of Jews in Germany.

As we all know, his guess turns out to be correct, but at the time and place of this story it’s still not clear exactly what, if anything, might befall Jewish people, other than some more overt, but not catastrophic, anti-Semitism. But he finds work in Kenya as the bwana (manager) of a farm, working for an unsympathetic-but-not-evil landowner. Walter sees the drastic changes to their lives in crystal clear terms, and implores his wife to leave their fancy china behind in order to make room to bring a refrigerator. They will be living hard lives in an unknown land and won’t have the resources for frivolities. The wife, either not understanding this or refusing to accept it, brings the china, spends their last few marks on a ball gown, and unapologetically shows up refrigerator-less.

This begins one of the primary plot themes, as Walter expects his wife to quickly let go of her old world view and accept the new reality, and Jettel refuses to accept that everything that had defined her up until this point in her life was gone, and that all she has left is life as the wife of a poor farm manager in Kenya. Caught up in the middle of all this is Regina, who is five years old when they move to Kenya. She immediately bonds with their cook Owuor, who is a tall, good-natured, middle-aged Masai tribesman who is more than happy to work in the house of a bwana. Regina and Owuor develop a spiritual kinship despite the difference in their ages and backgrounds.

The story is told primarily from Regina’s point of view, as she explores the new world and new reality with the open mind, open heart, and resilience of a child. The story spans many years, from their emigration to escape the Nazis, to the end of WWII and their agonizing struggle to figure out what to do in the *new* new world. In between these bookends the film tells the story of their lives in Kenya, trying to make a living, keep their family together, educate their child, understand what’s happening to their families back home, and understand their adopted country.

This doesn’t sound very exciting, and it isn’t, but it is engrossing and meaningful, as their day-to-day struggles are the same as ours, only magnified by their bizarre circumstances. Should they be happy to still be alive, or should they be grieving for the loss of the life they once had and the peril of their families back home? Or both? Should they be raising their daughter to be a Kenyan, a German, or a Jew?

The Kenya they live in is hard and beautiful, and the native Kenyans benevolently/bemusedly tolerate these strange residents of their land. There is just a touch too much of the “noble savage” stereotype for my tastes, but it is subtly done and the viewer is not clonked over the head with it. The locations are both breathtakingly beautiful while also feeling real and not staged for the film. The cinematography does justice to the natural beauty.

The acting is virtually flawless. Regina is played by two different actresses, one as the young Regina, one is the adolescent Regina, and both capture the same spirit and tone so that the transition is smooth. The adult characters are very deeply drawn and well-acted, even those with small roles. The film is over two hours long, and the pacing is deliberate, but the story spans multiple years and kept me totally engaged throughout. The main characters all speak German in the film, with English subtitles, but this is not as distracting as it may sound. There are multiple languages being spoken by many of the characters, so almost any viewer would need at least some subtitles in order to understand. After the first few language changes I stopped noticing the subtitles.

Refreshingly, the film does not depict the Nazis, WWII, or the Holocaust, but instead tells the smaller story of real people caught up the larger events of the world. World events occur elsewhere and only impact our characters via letters and radio broadcasts. I find this refreshing because while there are many films made about WWII, there are very few that are made about such a remote but oddly fascinating facet of that period. This film told a story about real characters who felt like real people to me. I laughed with them and agonized with them and was confused by the unfolding events, just as they were. I believed what was happening on the screen, and I cared about the characters and about what happened to them. What more can you ask from a film?

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