Nowhere in Africa Movie Review

The latest film from director Caroline Link follows a young Jewish family from Germany to Kenya as they flee the Nazi regime at the onset of World War II. Far from being yet another war epic, this adaptation of Stefanie Zweig's autobiographical novel deals primarily with the trials and triumphs of starting a new life in a foreign land. As young Regina (played by Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz) grows up in the company of the Pokot tribe, her parents Jettel (Juliane Köhler) and Walter (Merab Ninidze) must learn to cope with their waning love for one another and the fact that they may never see their families again.

That the movie focuses mainly on the characters rather than the war gives this story its strength. Kurka and Eckertz both give skillful performances as Regina in her respective stages of adolescence. The character comes off as being not only blissfully innocent but fiercely intelligent. When the Pokot children teach her how to warm her feet in cow dung, or when she gathers everyone around for a story about angels, you can't help but wonder whether the tribe still talks about Stefanie Zweig so many years later. Likewise, when she debates with her tribal boyfriend about whether she should remove her blouse in order to more freely climb a tree (the way any Pokot teenager might do), we're presented with a clever example of culture clash.

Unfortunately, a handful of problems with the directing and editing keep Nowhere in Africa from reaching its full potential. By far, the most serious issue is the way that Link positions Jettel as the main character, rather than Regina. The former is almost wholly unlovable and therefore audience members are likely to have little sympathy for her woes. From the start, she jeopardizes her family's welfare by pointedly deciding not to bring a refrigerator to Kenya, as her husband has requested. We soon learn that she has instead packed their shipping crates with fine china and spent the money on a fancy dress that she's never worn. Perhaps this would be forgivable if there were additional scenes to help us understand her torment; but as it is, Jettel seems more spoiled than anything else.

The second major problem--which also centers on Jettel--is that Link wants badly to create a love story out of Jettel and Walter's unstable relationship. While we're supposed to believe that the harshness of life in the Kenyan desert pulls the two apart (and then brings them back together again), it's difficult to see how they were ever really in love to begin with. In one of the first scenes, when Jettel's father-in-law says to her, "One of you always loves the most," it's clear that the relationship is already out of balance. And sure enough, we see Jettel flirt with a neighborly expatriate and then shamelessly start up an affair with a handsome-but-manipulative British officer. Because this infidelity comes so easily to Jettel, one presumes that the cracks in her marriage are her own fault--not the desert's.

Other flaws include a much-too-simplistic portrayal of Owuor, the family's African cook, and some strange close-ups of Walter's face each time he makes a sudden realization. (There is a similar close-up of a locust in a key scene toward the end, but I highly doubt that there is a connection.)

Surprisingly, Nowhere in Africa manages to be fairly memorable despite these shortcomings. This is quite possibly because the story captures viewers' imaginations, as it did mine. The premise makes one wonder what it might be like to grow up in a completely foreign land, surrounded by entirely different customs and languages. Indeed, it's too bad that Regina doesn't play an even bigger role in the film, for her part of the story is the most satisfying.

Aka Nirgendwo in Afrika.

Link offers a commentary on the new DVD (in German, with subtitles that replace the film subtitles). She also annotates 10 minutes of deleted scenes -- if you're of the impression that this film needs to be longer.

Or is it Club Med?

Comments

Nowhere in Africa Rating

" Good "

Rating: NR, 2001

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