For sometime now, I have desired to write about and recommend director Caroline Link’s fantastic Nowhere in Africa (2001). The right opportunity has just never seemed to present itself. I do not know if mid-April 2012 is the right opportunity, but I did not want to sit on this any longer or devise excuses to not write about a film that has stayed with me like few others. One of the ways in which I judge a film is by the degree to which I can recall its moments and visions after only a single viewing. I viewed Nowhere in Africa nearly a decade ago, and it still resonates strongly; I have no qualms about discussing and recommending it nearly ten years removed from seeing it a single time.
A German director, Link writes about and directs a story that is quite familiar to us now: Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis and Holocaust during the late 1930s and 1940s. Many films, too many to list or name here, have dealt with the plight of Jews during the Holocaust. Some of these have been heartwrenching and depressing, but still excellent. Link’s film, which deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, discusses the same subject from a decidedly different perspective.
Link accurately acknowledge’s our familiarity with the horrible images of concentration camps, so she gives us none of those. The horror is communicated by other means: a train leaving a station or a husband informing his wife that her family has been moved. We know what is to happen in the film and what happened in history. Link feels in no way compelled to recreate unnecessary imagery, and for that she should be thanked.
The storyline of Nowhere in Africa centers on a married Jewish couple, Jettel and Walter Redlich (Juliane Kohler and Merab Ninidze), and their daughter, Regina (Lea Kurka and Karoline Ekertz), who relocate to Kenya to avoid the catastrophes of Nazi Germany and WWII. And while WWII and the Holocaust settle into the backdrop, the film becomes much more a study of a family, a husband, a wife, and a daughter, who must come to know and re-know each other through global horrors, family traumas, and personal loss.
Nowhere in Africa begins with an image that is simultaneously endearing and ominous. Jettel Redlich stands on picturesque Bavarian mountain as children sled. Snow appears beautiful and innocent as only snow can when great cinematography wants to make snow appear beautiful and innocent. Jettel stumbles in the snow, and young German officer, with the swastika clearly on display looks down at her, a German Jew. He offers her his hand and guides her to his feet. Both smile and continue to enjoy the Bavarian winter wonderland.
This beautiful initial sequence sets up one of the film’s tragedies: Jettel is denied a German identity even though she clearly values it. Yes, Jettel is Jewish, but she sees herself as a German citizen who can lay claim to being part of the Germany. Her Jewishness does not preclude her national identity. For the longest time Jettel refuses to believe that her nation, one which she admired and defended, would not only deny her a right to be German but would exterminate her and her family because she and they also happened to be Jewish.
Walter comes to a quicker realization of how Nazi German sees Jews and the danger posed to him and his family, so he finds a way to relocate them to Kenya. Jettel, jarred by dislocation and disbelief, struggles in her new home and engages in a dalliance with another man. The dissonance between Walter and Jettel on their Jewish and German identities frays their relationship. Jettel, angry at being relocated to Kenya, directs her frustration and disappointment toward Walter. Walter, in turn, grows increasingly frustrated at Jettel’s refusal to see the designs and intentions of Nazi Germany.
Jettel and Walter mend their relationship, but the mending occurs organically and lovingly, not through sappy closeups and bad background music. Link allows both characters to develop and change, and it is through such careful character development that their marriage is lovingly put back together.
Jettel eventually realizes the more than horrible consequences of Nazi Germany. In painfully emotional scene, she is told of the deaths of her family. Kohler’s performance is exquisite. She allows us to be frustrated with her character but at all times understand her internal dilemma. Despite Jettel’s flaws and mistakes, we desire to love her much like Walter does.
Other films have documented and told tale of Nazis, WWII, and the Holocaust; these films often use and rely on grisly images to relay what was an evil reality. Link’s film takes vastly different tactic, not necessarily better, but different and effective. The film never forgets or attempts to elude the Holocaust. The Redliches, while lucky in comparison, were torn from each other, their families, and cast out. Large events can be told with a variety of narratives; Nowhere in Africa is one terrific narrative.