An Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film and winner of five Golden Lola Awards (the German Oscars), Nowhere in Africa recounts the true story of a Jewish family who fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and found refuge in Kenya. Although beautifully shot and acted, the film is hampered by an unsympathetic lead character whose transformation from pampered, selfish bitch to strong, self-reliant woman simply does not ring true.
Written and directed by Caroline Link, the film (in German and Swahili, with English subtitles) is based on an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig, who was five years old when she and her parents moved to Kenya. Whereas the book unfolds from a child’s perspective, Link shifts the film’s focus to the parents. Regina (the fictional name given Zweig’s character) still plays a major role in the story, but her mother, Jettel, is now the central figure.
Accustomed to a privileged life, Jettel (Juliane Köhler of Aimée and Jaguar) makes no effort to adjust to her reduced circumstances. Refusing to learn either the language or the local customs, she is condescending and rude to Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), the cook her husband has hired. And she’s openly contemptuous of her husband, Walter (Merab Ninidze), who has gone from being a respected lawyer in Germany to a farmhand in Africa. The marriage starts to disintegrate.
Unlike her mother, Regina (Lea Kurka) falls in love with Africa. Shy but curious, she quickly befriends the local children and warmly embraces the unfamiliar culture. She and Owuor form a strong bond.
The film follows the family through the war years, when Regina (played as an adolescent by Karoline Eckertz) is sent to boarding school in Nairobi and Walter is interned as an “enemy alien” by the British (Britain granted Kenya independence in 1963).
The audience is supposed to buy Jettel’s slow maturation from a spoiled, ungrateful woman into a strong, caring individual and to forgive her earlier behavior. But we never see what brings about this supposed transformation. As good as Kohler is — she’s very persuasive as the cold, narcissistic wife — we never see the small emotional moments that change her perception of either Africa or her lot in life. We never see the country through her eyes. There is a connection between Regina (played beautifully by both young actresses)and the landscape that eludes Jettel even after she changes.
The film has plenty going for it: fine performances (including Matthias Habich as Süsskind, another German émigré-turned-farmer), Niki Reiser’s lovely score, and evocative camera work by cinematographer Gernot Roll. If only Link hadn’t pushed the mother’s story front and center. It is the weakest element in the film. Unfortunately, it is also the biggest element.