Has a movie filmed in the open African vistas ever failed to receive ovations for its visual flair? Yes — it is an impressive, gasp-inducing continent, but it is also particularly and supremely photogenic. Maybe it’s the swirls of dust, or the isolated trees, or the jutting cliffs — whichever, it is powerful enough that fluff fair like “The Gods Must Be Crazy” can pin you to the back of your seat. So with that said, I will offer the newly Oscar-ed — for best foreign language film — “Nowhere in Africa” its cliched congratulations from the outset: baby, you look gorgeous.
And she knows it, too. From the very beginning, the movie enraptures us with a little comparative cinematography (and geography). As the film’s young protagonist Regina (Karoline Eckertz) recounts the beauties of the Kenyan landscape, a native boy bikes furiously along a rough path, upturning plenty of dust. Regina then recalls her homeland, Germany, with aesthetic bitterness, and the camera, sharing her contempt, cuts back and forth between a dark, dismal, snow-covered Europe and the glowing, warm, inspiring Africa.
Upon finishing its gratuitous man-on-terrain love-fest ,which the audience of course now shares, Caroline Link’s “Nowhere in Africa” launches into its intriguing true story, based on the novel by Stefanie Zweig. It’s 1938, and the Redlichs, an upper-class German-Jewish family, are beginning to feel the hateful effects of Hitler’s policies. Determined not to live under the oppressive regime, father Walter (Merab Ninidze), mother Jettel (Juliane Kohler), and daughter (and narrator) Regina flee their homeland and seek refuge in British-controlled Kenya. Walter manages to secure a farm that the family must work in exchange for the food and shelter it provides. While a feverish Germany balances on the brink of war, the Redlichs try to adjust to their unfamiliar new life.
The rest of the film combines the family’s actual, physical adventures –they move from farm to prison camp to farm again, at the whim of the enemy British — with the personal and interpersonal dynamics such a different land engenders. Walter’s initial acceptance of a lost life gives way to anger at a culture that ostracizes him; pampered, prissy Jettel must move past her petty assumptions about the world; and young Regina, full of curiosity, quickly bonds with and understands her new home. With Africa pulling each Redlich in a different direction, they must fight to stay together as a family.
Stirring, gripping stuff, but can the forefront compare to the mesmerizing backdrop? For the most part, yes, it can. At times, it lapses into unfortunate fish-out-of-water didacticism, especially in the predicable Jettel story arch. Her internalized racism, heightened by culture shock, soon leads to painful realizations like “what I’ve learned here is how important differences are.” I can only hope that the screenwriter’s original nuance was lost in the translation.
Luckily, such tidy growth does not hinder the fascinating, unkempt marriage of Walter and Jettel. They are tragically and achingly unintimate in Africa, unable to reconcile their old passions with a new environment. Yet, smartly, the film avoids pinpointing an easily identifiable tension. They also seem stilted by what is happening to their families, to their country — it’s as if the hate that has divided their homeland has spoiled their ability to connect with each other. They may be able to physically leave Germany, even run halfway across the world, but Germany can never leave them; the horror still cuts straight to the heart.
It is those desert vistas, those craggy plateaus, and those “differences,” however sentimentalized, which ultimately provide the Redlichs with some hope. First, it is in this context that Regina becomes a woman. Her spiritual connection to the culture, the animals, and the people — especially the wise family cook — has an indefinable value on her humanity. Even her anti-Jewish, British schoolmaster sees it, in the touching scene when he loans her a book.
While the African land does provide a buffer between the family and the realities of war, the soil also has mending powers on those it nourishes. Near the film’s climax, locusts descend on the family’s crops, and in a cloud of insects, each member rushes to the food source, swatting to save it from demolition. Sharing a love for the land, they finally come together with one common purpose. It is this moment that impels me to extend my earlier congratulation: baby, everyone knows you’re gorgeous, but thanks for being more than just a pretty face.