nowhere in africa (2002)


director: caroline link

juliane kohler, sidede onyulo, merab ninidze, lea kurka, karoline eckertz

If Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa weren’t based on a true story, it would be easy to accuse it of biting off more than it could chew. Based on Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel, it’s a pocket epic of sorts that begins in Nazi Germany and ends up in Africa, and happens in the calm eddies of history outside the violence and upheaval of World War Two.

Regina Redlich is a little girl when she flees Germany with her mother, joining her father (Merab Ninidze), a Jewish lawyer who’s found work as a foreman on a cattle ranch in Kenya. Her mother (Juliane Köhler), a spoiled and willful woman who enjoyed being a lawyer’s wife, is unable to deal with the bush, or the impending slaughter she’s left behind. As secular Jews, they considered themselves Germans first, and she clings to that illusion while her husband struggles with unaccustomed hard work and growing guilt over leaving their families behind.

In the meantime, Regina forms a deep bond with Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), their loyal cook, and the villagers who work on the farm. There’s little fault to be found in any of the performances, particularly Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz, who play Regina as she grows up. With the event-crowded journey the Reclichs take through the film - war, internment, infidelity, even a plague of locusts - it’s hard not to see why Nowhere in Africa won the foreign film Oscar. Hollywood loves getting value for its money, and when the scenery is a nicely shot as the love scenes, it would be churlish to say that a film like Nowhere in Africa doesn’t strive to hold your attention.

But it’s at the end when the film stumbles. It’s hard to avoid a patronizing air in even the most well-intentioned films about Africa, and Sidede Onyulo’s Owuor has to bear a ponderous weight as Regina and her family’s main link with the country and its people. We know, from almost the beginning, that Regina and her family will leave, so the farewell scene with Owuor is pivotal.

It was a bitter mistake to identify the man with the little girl’s pet dog, and while Link was probably trying to avoid making the farewell too bathetic, she errs in the other direction by making his departure so inappropriately perfunctory. The family’s return to Europe is spiked with poetic images and perfect little “moments”, but it lacks resonance, and Link’s film ends without a hint of the bitter sadness of a real, and permanent, leave-taking.