The much-awarded German drama Nowhere in Africa--Oscar's Best Foreign Film for 2003--deserves kudos for bringing to cinematic light yet another intriguing perspective on the displacement of the World War II Holocaust. In detailing the story of one German-Jewish family's resettlement in Africa, writer-director Caroline Link (working from Stefanie Zweig's autobiographical novel) admirably raises the question: where is home to a divided family?
Beginning in 1938, the Redlich family odyssey spans the duration of the war and then some, resolving in 1947. An audience member at the public screening I attended walked out wondering, "I feel like I watched a novel," and indeed the epic scope and sometimes soapy melodrama suggest an episodic mini-series. Walter Redlich, with the support of the small Jewish community in Africa, establishes a humble homestead on Kenyan farmland. The film opens with the first in a series of effectively pointed contrasts: the heat and expanse of Africa to the populous cold of Germany under the Nazis. Shortly before the establishment of the ghettos, Walter calls for his wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler) and five-year-old daughter Regina (Lea Kurka) to muster their resources and join him. The resulting struggle to acclimate to a new lifestyle puts a severe strain on marriage and family.
In large part, Nowhere in Africa is a classy snoozer, elegant but staid, overlong, and unfocused. The point of view shifts awkwardly from Regina's childlike outlook and the adult perspective of her dysfunctional parents (Regina's outlook blossoms into teenage with actress Karoline Eckertz). The acting, while basically faultless, is also curiously bland. The overstuffed plot forces obvious dramatic beats, such as the father and daughter's most blissful moment being followed immediately by Walter's internment by the misguided colonial British. Ultimately, Link steers the story to the tidily stated lesson "Differences are good."
But Link resists the siren song of sentiment all along the way, allowing her characters--in particular, Mr. and Mrs. Redlich--to be suspect in their choices and even outright unlikeable. Link remains committed to her construct of ironic contrasts which gradually become comparisons. The family's initial, casual racism conjures the less subtle Nazi hate they've left behind, and the displaced Jews are not unlike the natives whose land has been usurped. By the time the British blithely intern the German refugees for their nationality (and not their allegiance), cultural misunderstanding seems an inescapable cycle. Regina's open-hearted embrace of Africa, embodied by the family's native attendant Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), breaks down cultural defenses. Kurka, with the baby face and porcelain skin of Drew Barrymore, and the shrewd and warm Onyulo make a fine pair (I also enjoyed the perfect superfluity of a scene observing the German girl's theatrical play with the native boys).
In the end, Link replaces her symbol of Africa--the at least occasionally spicy Owuor--with the generic image of a smiling, giving woman. In doing so, Link also reminds us of the film's tenuous hold on its own distinctiveness.