Winner of the 2003 Academy Award for Foreign Language film by default (since both Spain and Mexico inexplicably failed to nominate their strongest films), Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika) plods through new terrain in Holocaust related subject matter with a shotgun mentality—throwing lots of cow dung on the screen, hoping something sticks. After all, there's no need to exercise editing artistry when dealing with the Holocaust since audiences automatically assign such films a higher value. Somewhere inside the raw footage exists a good film, but the 138-minute final cut feels like you've wandered across the plains of Kenya for just a few good scenes.
Based on Stefanie Zweig's autobiographical novel, Nowhere in Africa chronicles a family of upper-middle-class German Jews that relocate to dry and dusty Kenya in 1938 to avoid the coming Nazi menace. A lawyer in Germany, Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) finds those skills irrelevant in his new life, where successful well-digging is far more prized than legal research. Escaping the fatherland early, Walter sends word to his culturally refined wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler) to leave her belongings behind and bring 5-year old daughter Regina (Lea Kurka) to join him in the African outback, packing a refrigerator at most. Not sensing the urgency or trusting her husband's veracity, as well as developing the theme of "unequal love" that Jettel's father-in-law warns her about, as "the one who loves the most is most vulnerable," Jettel forgoes the refrigerator, buys a frivolous evening gown, and packs their best china for Kenya.
Not a promising sign for their marital relationship, Jettel doesn't adjust readily to life in the bush, missing her parents and the social niceties of her European lifestyle. She also initially treats their good-hearted cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) with disdain, contrasting greatly with little Regina. She instantly bonds with Owuor, makes friends with the native children, learns their language, and happily soothes her feet with warm Kenyan cow pies. Both Regina and Walter are far more sympathetic characters than Jettel, but the film primarily strives to get its dramatic tension from Jettel, and is told primarily through the eyes of an older Regina (played very naturally by Karoline Eckertz).
Although this works to a degree, the film plays as a broad meandering love affair with Africa, but abruptly solves the family obstacles without getting under Jettel's skin. The marriage appears on the rocks. Jettel spurns her husband's amorous intentions at first, causing Walter to declare she's only interested in making love when he's a lawyer, and she actually gets excited when the British cart off the German refugees into separate prison camps since the ladies are housed at a fine resort hotel, complete with lobster buffets and high tea. More signs of marital discord surface here, as Jettel becomes attracted to a British officer, but this is quickly dropped—a logical choice given the narrative point of view, but it feels incomplete.
Some magical scenes highlight the film, which is largely shot on location in Kenya, providing authentic sweeping landscapes. Gernot Roll captures the most exciting footage of a locust plague ever, creating suspense with a few insect close-ups and setting up the situation with the locals beating the pests off the corn before the multitudes swarm. It's a memorable scene, one that certainly would be vividly described by anyone experiencing it.
So in a sense the film plays out much like a teenage diary, that highlights events without giving much more structure to the narrative than the basic biographical day to day life. Essentially the daughter falls in love with Africa while her parents diverge—her father growing more disenchanted with his place as an outsider as the years wear on while her mother finds charms in the African bush as time passes. Without surviving family in Germany, and never feeling comfortable again in a country so devastated by anti-Semitism, what future does she have to look forward to back in their native home, unless she achieves harmony within the home?
The film most comes to life when comfortably dealing with charismatic Owuor and the native culture, a clear indicator of the daughter's affinity with Kenya. Had Nowhere in Africa remained here, it would slip into either sentimentality or evolve into cultural documentary. Give director Caroline Link credit for not stooping to Disneyesque good time stories or over-emphasizing the Holocaust; however, Regina's point of view doesn't make for compelling drama. She was never in conflict with her surroundings—great for her psychological health and well being, but such a sketchy adolescent narrative simply doesn't play as strongly as it could have had it slipped inside the more conflicted adults.
It's a film that starts strongly with some charms, some natural performances, and cultural awareness, but aimlessly meanders into soap opera mundaneness in the second half, landing it alongside numerous other well-meaning films that fail to resonate deeply. With such beautiful scenery, a better film must exist somewhere between the present footage and the cutting room floor.