Sink or fit in

An Oscar-winning tale of escape from the Holocaust to Kenya.

Apr 23, 2003 at 12:00 am

Nowhere in Africawon an Academy Award last month for best foreign language film and one can see why. Not that it was the best foreign language film from last year — far from it — but it has the kind of retro elements that the academy tends to honor, especially in the formerly cutting-edge foreign language category.

It’s a conventional narrative with a historical backdrop, a domestic drama in an exotic setting whose essential seriousness is considerably enhanced by the specter of the Holocaust, a consuming monster doing its evil work at a great distance from the main action. For at least two-thirds of the way, one can appreciate the film’s novelistic unfolding, the detailed development of its characters and the anecdotal progression of its plot. It’s an approach that seems to justify its considerable length (2 hours, 20 minutes). And not until its final section does Nowhere start to seem both repetitious and contracted, like a miniseries that’s been edited down to its dramatic highlights.

The film, written and directed by Caroline Link, has been adapted from an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig. It tells the story of a Jewish couple and their young daughter who emigrate from Germany to Kenya in 1938, in order to escape the increasing threat of Nazism. The husband, Walter (Merab Ninidze), goes first — and the movie opens with scenes alternating between his wife, Jettel (Juliane Kohler), living a rather luxurious but anxious life in Frankfurt and Walter suffering a serious (but not fatal) bout of malaria in Kenya.

The contrast between their cosmopolitan background and their wilderness destination is quickly and starkly made. Walter, a lawyer, and his wife must turn themselves into tenant farmers in Kenya in order to survive. While they react to exile according to their temperaments — he stoic, she openly bitter — their 5-year-old daughter (and stand-in for author Zweig), Regina (Lea Kurka), is more responsive to her surroundings, their natural beauty and the friendliness of the native inhabitants.

The family is helped by their cook, Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), who’s both proud to be working in a “bwana” household — he admits at one point that it impresses his three wives — and bemused by the helplessness of his employers. As the only real link between the German family and the local culture, Onyulo gives a nicely shaded performance, managing to convey dignity while avoiding the noble savage stereotype.

In this strange and trying setting, Walter and Jettel grow emotionally apart, then closer, then apart, etc. When the war breaks out, the family is arrested by the British military for being “enemy aliens,” though prison for Jettel and Regina turns out to be a converted luxury hotel that still serves haute cuisine on its expansive veranda. The internment is temporary since as soon as the Brits figure out that the family’s loyalties are not with Germany, they’re released. Meanwhile, Regina (now played by 13-year-old Karoline Eckertz) has been receiving an education at an English-run boarding school, where she not only excels in her studies, but even manages to charm the school’s egregiously anti-Semitic headmaster.

That the headmaster is capable of responding positively to Regina is typical of how the movie often skirts cliché. Even when Jettel has sex with a young British officer in order to secure a job for her husband, the soap opera-ish trope isn’t handled quite like you’d expect. The officer isn’t presented as a pig and Jettel doesn’t enter his embrace like Joan of Arc approaching the stake; we’re spared a shot of her blankly staring into space, a single tear of remorse trickling down her sacrificial cheek as he lustily mauls her. Instead, he seems like a decent chap and she seems rather eager.

But as the war winds down, so does the movie — and whether or not Jettel ever manages to relocate her emotional center, or whether or not Walter returns to Germany where he’s been offered a position as a judge, seems much less compelling than the earlier sequences of survival and discovery. But those earlier sequences are worth the trip — and if the last part seems a little arduous, that may be intentional. It’s the story, after all, of a child and two adults, snatched from comfort and forced to grow up the hard way.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].