Nowhere in Africa (2001) Movie Review

I’m reasonably certain that Caroline Link’s “Nowhere in Africa” will strike a cord with a lot of people. After all, it did when the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 2002, although how a movie made in 2001 qualifies for the 2002 Oscars, given out in 2003, is just one more mystery in a long line of mysteries when it comes to the American tradition most in need of common sense known as the Oscars.

In “Nowhere”, a Jewish family flees their native Germany in 1938 when Nazism threatens to consume the country. Feeling the growing hostility against them, the father, Walter (Merab Ninidze), has gone on ahead to Africa to make way for his wife and child. Soon, Walter’s wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler) and young daughter Regina (Karoline Eckertz) comes to join him, leaving everything they know and cherish behind. Finding themselves in the middle of nowhere in the African countryside, the family works as caretakers for a British rancher.

As Jettel tells her daughter, the family is now poor, and can’t afford luxuries like chocolate. Of course that doesn’t prevent Jettel, who comes from a family of middle class people, from bringing expensive utensils and buying a new dress for the trip, while ignoring Walter’s letter telling her to buy practical shoes and a fridge. At first Jettel is unable to acclimate to her new African surroundings, but young Regina, spurred by curiosity inherent in all children, warms quickly to her new world. And just when the family is starting to settle into their new life, World War II breaks out and Walter is separated from Jettel and Regina.

If you’re starting to get the feeling that “Nowhere in Africa” is a drama of epic proportions, then your instincts are correct. The movie takes place over a 9-year span, and there’s enough life-altering moments in-between those 9 years to fill out another dozen movies. As previously mentioned, I’m sure “Nowhere” will appeal to a lot of people, with its themes of isolation and paradise lost and found and lost again. Director Caroline Link makes great use of cinematographer Gernot Roll, and the African countryside is glorious in its simplicity and natural wonder. Link also makes a conscious decision to keep the scenes from becoming static, giving the film a feeling of urgency. This is necessary in a movie that has plots only interesting to the people living them.

At nearly two hours and 20 minutes, “Nowhere” is perhaps 30 minutes too long and 3 life-altering plots too many. Based on a novel by Stefanie Zweig, the movie is narrated by young Regina, who ages 9 years and blossoms into a young woman by the end of the film. The young Regina is played by the wide-eyed Karoline Eckertz, with Lea Kurka stepping into the role in the second half. Young Karoline is spectacular in the role, and her relationship with Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), the family’s African cook, is the most beautiful part of the whole film.

The star of “Nowhere” is Juliane Kohler as Jettel. Once the family is separated by the war, it’s Jettel who has to take charge. Although she had refused to accept the family’s new situation in Africa, Jettel eventually accepts the notion that their home is lost and they must now make due with what’s at hand. Forced to suddenly become more than just a wife, Jettel arranges for the family to have a new job and home, and finally becomes her own woman, even if she’s still unsure what that means.

But there is one major beef I have with the movie. Through all the trials and tribulations of the family, the screenplay either doesn’t care, or wishes to gloss over, the notion of foreigners owning African land. Like Owuor, the Africans have become subservient workers, taking on menial jobs while white people lord over them. Even Walter and his family, refugees from their own home, have become the masters of the native Africans. The film approaches this subject once for a couple of seconds, but shows its cowardice by ignoring it all the other times.

On the plus side, the film’s star, Juliane Kohler, is a remarkable actor and her transformation from hesitant refugee to full-fledge master of her own fate is gradual enough to be believable. Surprisingly, the character of Walter seems to have a split personality throughout the film, as if the screenplay couldn’t decide what kind of man he is. Whereas Jettel and Regina go through character arcs, Walter’s development is all over the place, and he actually seems to regress later on in the film.

“Nowhere in Africa” is a good film with some breathtaking cinematography. Although I wish it had been brave enough to address the question of land ownership, and why natives are working for foreigners and not the other way around.

Caroline Link (director) / Caroline Link (screenplay), Stefanie Zweig (novel)
CAST: Juliane Köhler …. Jettel Redlich
Regine Zimmermann …. Käthe
Merab Ninidze …. Walter Redlich
Matthias Habich …. Sußkind
Karoline Eckertz …. Regina

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