Nowhere in Africa is a traditional narrative film, without gimmickry, tricky editing, or noticeable special effects (though one wonders how a plague of locusts is conjured up). In that sense, Nowhere in Africa could have been made thirty years ago. Regardless, its intriguing story, artfully developed characterizations, and fine performances carry the film to excellence. It doesn’t need jump cuts for energy, CGI for imagination or George Clooney’s butt for titillation–though the movie does include frank sexuality which is appropriate and telling in the context of its story.
The Redlich family, comfortably off German Jews, leave their home in Breslau in 1938 and flee to Kenya, anticipating that the already fraught situation in Germany would only get worse. Since the Nazis had confiscated most financial assets, the Redlichs are newly poor and have few options. Husband Walter (Merab Ninidze), a lawyer by trade, finds employment working a remote farm owned by a hostile British colonial–he calls them "bloody refugees." Conditions are difficult; the veldt is dry. They are isolated, with minimal comforts, in the midst of black natives whose language and ways are foreign to them. Walter is resigned, convinced their fate in Germany would have been far worse, which proves to be the case for the relatives they have left behind, those who were sure that things would get better for them at home.
But wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler, Aimee and Jaguar) initially resists the change; she’s accustomed to fine china, elegant clothes, the amenities of urban living. While she expresses foolish expectations that the natives will learn to speak German, their daughter, Regina (Lea Kurka), begins at once, with the curiosity of the young, to learn native words and to befriend their kindly cook, Owuor (Sidede Onyulo).
Writer/director Caroline Link (Beyond Silence), working from an autobiographical novel by Stephanie Zweig, explores the cultural divide between the sophisticated Europeans and the natives, who seem somewhat idealized here, living in satisfied harmony with the beautiful, but austere environment. Natives work at specialized tasks–one who sweeps the kitchen doesn’t do other domestic work. Men do not carry water which is women’s work; when Owuor assists Jettel with heavy water cans, he is mocked by the women at the water hole. Filmed on location in Kenya, the landscape is always present, almost as if another character in the film.
The central focus is on the family of three and how they change over time with changes in circumstances. When the war begins, German expatriates are interned by the British, the men separated from the women. In an early scene in Breslau, Walter’s father wisely observed to Jettel that in a relationship, "One always loves more [than the other], and the one who does is vulnerable." That line foreshadows the difficulties which this marriage endures. Link doesn’t deal in moral absolutes, but views the vicissitudes of the relationships in all their shades of gray. She fleshes out the portraits of the three members of this family with a richness of incident and draws performances from her actors that seem natural, while portraying the complexities of their emotional connections amidst the ups and downs of their destiny.
That the Redlichs were essentially nonobservant Jews adds irony to the situation; the Nazis were not dealing in religion but scapegoating those who were different. When the war ends, it is Walter who wants to return to Germany where he can resume his career and Jettel who has come to feel that Kenya is home. "What I have learned here," she says, "is how valuable differences are."