The Holocaust is a famously difficult subject for a film. It requires a balance of sophistication, solemnity, and understatement. Even if a filmmaker achieves this difficult balance, there’s also an unavoidable metaphysical conundrum: as Elie Wiesel puts it, a film about the Holocaust either isn’t a film or isn’t about the Holocaust.
Caroline Link, writer and director of Nowhere in Africa, avoids most of the pitfalls by using the Holocaust only as a backdrop. Based on Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel, the film keeps the fate of Europe’s Jews off screen. Walter and Jettel (Merab Ninidze and Juliane Köhler), and their daughter, Regina (Karoline Eckertz and Lea Kurka) are German Jews who flee the Nazis in 1937, to live on a farm in Kenya, where they listen to the radio and read infrequent letters from home, in order to hear the news.
Sometimes, this strategy leads to heavy-handed assertions. When Jettel learns that some of her family has been sent to Poland “to work,” she proclaims, “Poland means death.” It would have been unlikely, early in 1941 and from so far away, for her to guess this, as the major death camps in Poland weren’t fully active until 1942.
Still, when bad news comes, the Redlichs display little grief. Likewise, the film keeps sentimentality and violence to a minimum. The chaos and loss associated with the Holocaust are prevalent, but located elsewhere, and in different forms. Nowhere in Africa is about the collision of worlds between “civilized” Europe and “untamed” Kenya.
Despite Walter’s early warnings, Jettel does not expect Kenya to be all that different from Frankfurt and is therefore profoundly unsettled when she arrives. She’s too used to her former affluence to adjust. “It’s lovely,” she tells Walter when she first sees their farm, “but we can’t live here.” Her sense of displacement manifests in her treatment of the family’s cook, Owuor (Sidede Onyulo). She neither understands nor appreciates his customs, insisting that he speak to her only in German and asking him to carry water, which, he tells her, is women’s work.
Since they have little choice but to live there, the Redlichs must overcome the culture clash, the landscape, and entirely new occupations (Walter was a lawyer in Germany). The process strains their marriage: Walter chastises Jettel for her priorities (she buys a fancy dress instead of a refrigerator) and suspects her of infidelity (which she commits with a British officer to help Walter obtain a job after he’s arrested by the British). And Jettel chastises him for not comprehending the difficulties of her new life. Their problem, of which they are not fully aware, is that their love is on the wane, exacerbated by all the stresses of relocation, assimilation, and hardship.
Even deeper, and more persistent, are their crises of identity. In this sense, they did not escape the Nazi onslaught. Walter is embattled, his Jewishness compelling him to leave Germany for Africa, but also conflicting with his sense of being a German. He tends to define himself by his place of origin and his occupation. Yet, even this is shaken: in Kenya, he enlists in the British Royal Army to fight the Germans. As his fellow expatriate and friend, Süsskind (Matthias Habich), angrily tells him, “You don’t know who you are.” Walter’s ambivalence makes him stubborn, unlikable, and weak, but in him, the film finds its complexity.
Jettel’s grappling is less overtly tormented because, as it turns out, she’s stronger than Walter. Initially boorish, condescending, and resistant, she becomes increasingly sensitive, eventually adjusting to Kenya in a way that Walter never does. “We thought we were as German as anyone could be,” she says, realizing that identity must be flexible, particularly when it comes to survival. She tells her daughter that she has “learned the value in difference.”
The Redlichs’ confusion is sharply contrasted with their daughter’s relative peacefulness. Wide-eyed, Regina adjusts to her new life immediately and creates a formidable bond with Owuor. Her narration, looking back as an adult, grants the film a kind of nostalgia, even as she recalls her parents’ conflicts. When the British army round up German men at the start of the war, Regina and her mother, along with other German women and children, are moved to a series of hotels with grounds so green and buffets so delicious they seem absolutely idyllic.
Regina’s perspective occasionally gives way to a more omniscient point of view, as the film also imagines her mother’s experiences. Regina’s memory provides the film’s basic structure, elaborated by her parents’ more melodramatic story. Despite some cross-cultural encounters (Regina teaches African children about Christian angels, and they teach her about their gods) and minor examinations of the relationship between white farmers and Kenyans, what the film has to say about colonialism and its effects is unreflective and piecemeal.
The film’s thematic interest in conflicting experiences is revealed in its expansive landscapes. Intensely gorgeous and wild, particularly highlighted on a wide screen, Kenya harbors both splendor and hardship. Yet, for all the sweeping visuals, there’s nothing particularly innovative about Link’s direction; in its look and narrative arc, this is a traditional epic if there ever was one. It employs a familiar language of vistas for contemplation or transition, and close-ups for emotional punctuation.
Even if Nowhere in Africa is at times unchallenging, it has garnered many accolades, recently winning five German Film Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, as well as the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The politics and business of awards are surely complex. And truly, at its best, the film appreciates uncertainty and complexity, the fact that life is gray, not black and white.