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From a Distance

‘Nowhere in Africa’: Quiet and Compelling

By Tao Yue

Staff Writer

Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika)

Written and Directed by Caroline Link

Based on the biographical novel by Stefanie Zweig

Starring Juliane Kohler, Merab Ninidze, Lea Kurka, and Karoline Eckertz.

The story of a Jewish family fleeing Germany for an African farm at the outbreak of World War II offers tremendous dramatic possibilities. Imagine the hardships faced by these emigrants, the heartbreak of losing family members to the concentration camps, the struggle to eke out a living from the arid equatorial soil.

Nowhere in Africa instead takes a restrained, almost leisurely, approach to the subject matter. Surprisingly enough, this leads not to disaster but rather to a rich and compelling film, the type of film that deserved the Oscar for Best Foreign Film that it won.

Based on true events, Nowhere in Africa is narrated by a young girl, Regina Redlich. The Nazi onslaught is steadily approaching, and her father Walter has gone ahead to Kenya to arrange for a new life. Yet, when news arrives that the arrangements are ready, his wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler) is devastated at the thought of leaving Germany. Very conscious of creature comforts, she brings her Rosenthal chinaware but leaves behind the refrigerator that her more practical husband requested.

Jettel’s transformation from spoiled society wife to hardy farmer is just one of many changes which take place. Jettel and Walter grow apart as a couple, young Regina transforms to adapt to her African surroundings, and the upheavals of war affect the family in sometimes surprising ways.

All of these developments flow in a very natural manner, thanks in large part to the uniformly superb acting. From Regina to the family cook to the neighbor Susskind, every performance is truly believable. At the same time, every performance feels a bit restrained, even the children’s. Movies sometimes make the mistake of milking all the dramatic tension out of every scene. Nowhere in Africa doesn’t. It’s easy to imagine these as real people whose emotions are not always visible.

There are intense moments interrupting the quiet, such as when bad news arrives in a letter from Germany. The urgency of these moments is supplemented by Niki Reiser’s music, which adds touches of emotion. Yet the gloom never lasts. As we cut from Regina to Jettel to Walter, between the school and the farm, we follow these three separate lives that come into contact, not merely three parts of the same story. There’s an almost episodic feel to it, as though any problem can be left for later and tomorrow will always be a better day.

In fact, this is often what happens. Gernot Roll’s cinematography features much sunlight and vast vistas of green-and-brown fields. There is never a sense of confinement, and the prevailing use of long and medium shots gives our eyes room to wander. This distance from the characters, quite literal in the case of the camerawork, also gives the impression that we are observing, not participating.

What we observe is extremely compelling, and many individual episodes are quite memorable. For example, we see the kindly English headmaster remark on Regina’s Jewish origins when she says that she studies hard so she does not waste her family’s money. The segments fit loosely together, but the film never pounds the point home with repetition. Quite often, themes are dropped at the end of an episode and are quietly picked up later.

Unfortunately, this tendency to let go of premises without pursuing them to a final conclusion leaves some threads of the story hanging. A budding romance between the adolescent Regina and an African boy ends abruptly when she flashes him a smile and gets no response during a tribal ritual. One wonders how much of this and other subplots was shot and cut.

By portraying many events from a distance, the film does not take us on an emotional roller coaster ride. But we do feel that we’ve observed the family through a range of experiences, challenges as well as triumphs. Ultimately, we sympathize with the family, and that is where Nowhere in Africa succeeds despite its detachment.